Study: Men Struggle to Read Women’s Emotions

By Bill Andrews | April 12, 2013 9:52 am

confused man

In a paper sure to please lazy stand-up comics and beleaguered husbands everywhere, scientists say that men do indeed have a hard time understanding women. Recent results show that men have a significantly harder time recognizing women’s emotions than they do men’s, and that men seem to use different parts of their brain when ascribing intentions and feelings to women versus men.

Previous experiments had suggested that men are naturally wired to be more intuitive toward other men’s mental states and emotions. Eager to figure out why and how this could be, the researchers studied the brains of 22 male participants as they received a version of a well-known empathy test called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test.” (You can take a version of the test online here.) As the name suggests, the test consists of snapshots of pairs of eyes. Pairs of eyes were shown in succession to each participant, who had to determine either the gender or the emotional state of the person pictured. This all took place within an MRI machine, allowing the researchers to see which parts of the brain were active while participants made their determinations.

Participants were about equally good at guessing the gender of male and female eyes, but the men did significantly worse at recognizing the emotions of the female eyes. They correctly interpreted about 87 percent of men’s eyes but only about 76 percent of women’s eyes. Participants also took longer to judge women’s emotions—about 40 milliseconds longer on average. Thus, in effect, men can “read” other men’s eyes faster and better, the researchers report in PLOS ONE. 

The MRI data also showed for the first time that this difference is linked to different areas of brain activity. Men inferring other men’s mental states showed much more activity in the right hippocampus and the anterior cingulate cortex than men reading women’s emotions. Those two brain areas are involved in the acquisition of emotional memories, and so it may be that men were drawing more strongly on their own remembered experiences when imagining others men’s emotions.

The authors speculate that, evolutionarily, it would have been most useful for men to quickly and accurately interpret other men’s facial expressions, since males were more heavily involved in violent activities like hunting and territorial battles. Of course, just because “men are less able to infer mental states expressed by women,” as the authors put it, doesn’t mean that men find women completely inscrutable. The results show noticeable, but still generally subtle, differences. Plenty of men have still been known to lead long and happy lives (mostly) understanding women.

Image courtesy Dave Clark Digital Photo / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: emotions, gender
  • JonFrum

    “The authors speculate that, evolutionarily, it would have been most useful for men to quickly and accurately interpret other men’s facial expressions, since males were more heavily involved in violent activities like hunting and territorial battles.”

    This is what is called just-so story. And it doesn’t belong within a scientific publication. Readers can take any flight of speculative fancy they like – the authors of a scientific paper should stick to discussing their results, and not propose untestable hypotheses. Harrumph, harrumph!

  • Andrew

    I wonder how the results would compare if women were the subjects as opposed to men. The result is interesting, but I wonder if the results would be similar with women (interpreting 87% of women’s eyes and 76% of men’s eyes).

    • guest

      I’m a woman who took the online test and missed 5 men, but only one woman. I realize one person makes for a terrible population sample, but still I thought I’d share. 22 isn’t such a great sample size either, however, as cobaltclam noted.

  • hcanton

    Wow. You state in the article that “they received a version of a well-known empathy test called the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test.” (You can take a version of the test online here.)” I certainly hope, that the test they used WASN’T the one you link to. Because I see A LOT of problems with it. I went through the test, and the further I got, the more disturbing I found it. If that is what they used, their study needs to be thrown out and the researchers need to go back to square one. The images in that test show more about the researchers biases than the subjects’ inability to get the women’s emotions right. I found the images chosen to be so stereotypical that even while taking the test, I started being able to guess what the answer for the female images would be BEFORE I even looked at the picture close up. Odds are the answer was going to be one of 3 things: it would be something to do with her thinking about sex, her being thoughtful, or her being nervous. The pictures of the females are also very homogeneous; in all of them except one, the women are young and have no wrinkles. Contrast that to the male pictures where the men are shown with a variety of emotions and are shown in all age categories- some young with smooth skin, but most with a variety of lines and wrinkles.

    I also was disturbed by how many of the pictures depended on the use of artifacts- meaning the use of contrived things like the picture being taken at an angle to show the person staring off into the distance, like some Hollywood movie of a person staring off into the sea to show them thinking, or the use of heavy shadows and cosmetics to show “desire”. The images being shown aren’t actually testing how well a person can recognize emotions from the eyes, but how well they recognize Hollywood’s camera portrayals’ of those “feelings”.

    I was so annoyed with what I saw, that after I took the test, I went back and analyzed the images’ features’ statistically. Note, I didn’t include 2 of them in my numbers as it wasn’t clear if they were male or female. Results: Females: 13 of them appear to between about 16 and 30 in age, 5 are probably in their 30’s and 1 is 70+. In other words, in all pictures except one, the women have no lines around their eyes and only represent the age group: young with lots of eye makeup. Contrast that to the male pictures. My best guess is that 3 are in their 20’s, 5- 30’s, 1- 40’s, 3- 50’s, 1- 60’s, 3-70+, thereby representing all age groups. If a man taking the test didn’t happen to have much interaction with the age group “young women”, he very well might not be as good at recognizing the emotions of them. If however, women of all ages had been included in the pictures, then that same male might be able to recognize the emotions of other women whose age groups he’s more familiar with, without trouble.

    I categorized the “correct” answers into groups as well, and found I was not mistaken about the women only being shown with limited emotions/thoughts. Five of the women had the following answers: desire, fantasizing, fantasizing, flirtatious, and interested (where “interested” definitely has the meaning of “interested IN someone” because the expression sure wasn’t her being interested in particle physics or an interesting conversation.) NONE of the men were shown with an expression that meant the equivalent. Five women were shown with expressions where the correct answers were: contemplative, pensive, preoccupied, preoccupied, reflective. Only one man was shown with the answer “thoughtful”. Five women were shown with the answers: cautious, distrustful, doubtful, nervous, tentative. Three men were shown as: cautious, suspicious, uneasy. Only four women were shown with any other type of emotion: confident, decisive, interested (in the usual meaning of interested, rather than the above “interested”), and playful. So in this test, despite 19 women being shown, the men being tested basically had to be able to recognize 3 qualities the researchers apparently think about women- that women do a lot of fantasizing, that they look into the distance thoughtfully, and are apparently very nervous and distrustful.

    The researchers inserted stereotypes about men into this as well. Four of the men are aggressive: accusing, defiant, hostile, insisting (none of the women are). Three are cautious, suspicious, and nervous (as compared to five of the women). Three are despondent, upset and worried, and the rest are unique words: anticipating, concerned, friendly, serious, panicked, thoughtful (the only word that lines up to the women’s pictures in this group is “thoughtul).

    Other notes are that all of the images are of white people, that in the age 50+ category there is only one image that isn’t downright negative (the images are: despondent, suspicious, panicked, hostile, serious, upset.) Do the researchers think poorly of older people? What about men taking the test who have lots of happy, thoughtful, caring older people in their lives, not “grumpy old men”? For that matter why is there only one happy feeling, “playful” in all the photos?

    So for starters, to be a more valid test, for each emotion there should be an equivalent emotion photo for both sexes, rather than this garbage of 15 of the 19 women being some variation of fantasizing, preoccupied or nervous and 7 of the 16 men being some variation of angry/aggressive or suspicious. Saying that men have a harder time recognizing what women are feeling, when apples to apples is not what’s being tested, makes the statement invalid. Artifacts should not be used (all photos should be taken at the same angle in the same lighting), equal amounts of age groups of both sexes should be shown, a variety of races not just white should be included. All of these things that weren’t done invalidate the results of this “research”.

  • theirmind

    In fact, you do not know my heart. XD

  • Shane Milburn

    Cool test. Very hard imho. Took a long time on some to get any feel for what is happening, and some I got completely wrong.

  • Ron Nye

    Perhaps ‘she’ could make an actual effort to know her own emotional state and present it accurately to the guy. That would be novel. Oh, yes, and not deny it with the usual ‘oh, nothing’ when he intuits it accurately himself.

    • Flerys Merrywether

      Or maybe ‘he’ could just stop trying to ‘intuit’ emotional states. Many times when I have been in a neutral mood, nothing wrong but not smiling, male friends have asked me what’s wrong, insisting that my answer of ‘nothing’ meant something until I actually was annoyed. Even total strangers, usually old men, have told me to ‘smile’. It’s stupid. Sometimes, a woman isn’t smiling, and I don’t see why that puts some men on edge.

      • Luke Oakridge

        Men are cautious about what a woman’s emotions are from the experience of having women say that they are “fine” only to find out later that the women are angry. I believe that communication is important. Men are more likely to tell you if they are unhappy so at least you can talk about the issue.

        • Desiree Bennett-Cason

          I think the point of Flerys’ comment was that a lot of men seem to have this preconceived idea that a woman should always be smiling/friendly, and they jump to conclusions if she is not. I, too, have had a strangers tell me to smile; on more than one occasion. Whenever this has happened, it is always a man. I’ve never had a woman tell me I should smile. To be fair, I have to state that I have (the misfortune) the type/shape of mouth where if I have no expression, it does indeed look like I’m frowning/mad. So, yes it does look like I am pissed off, but why do men think they should try to “fix” this, especially when they don’t know the woman?

          • Luke Oakridge

            I occasionally hear some women, especially on feminist sites, complain that men tell them to smile, but I have personally never heard a man say this to a woman. It would be nice if there were some sort of objective study, because if this was really happening frequently then either I would have heard it sometime in the last two decades or my male or female friends would have mentioned it. But only a small number of women, especially on feminist sites mention it so I have no way of determining how wide spread it actually is.

  • cobaltclam

    87% vs. 76% in a sample size of 22. That’s not science at all.

  • A Standaert

    Sample size of 22? No female group? Interesting but hard to swallow.

  • Ana Bastow

    Did anyone recognized the celebrities eyes in the test? Keanu Reeves, Claudia Schiffer, Helena Christensen on the top of my head. I’m not sure about the old guys maybe Sir Anthony Hopkins.

  • Neuronhead

    How did women do? Or would putting women under scrutiny be seen as sexist? That would be ironic wouldn’t it.

  • galleymac

    I would like to see what the results would be if those women had their natural eyebrows on. (Am female.)

  • Catalina Pérez Guarani-Kaiowá

    This is one of those studies where you miss a “women group”. How would women do the task and which areas of theirs brains would become active?


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


Briefing you on the must-know news and trending topics in science and technology today.

See More

Collapse bottom bar