Empathy and systemizing

JAC BILLINGTON, SIMON BARON-COHEN AND SALLY WHEELWRIGHT’S STUDY ON EMPATHY AND SYSTEMISING (2007)

Introduction
Think about your A-level psychology class: are there more girls in your class, or more boys? The most likely answer is probably ‘more girls’. So why is that? Why, generally, do we see more men in scientific subjects and more women in the humanities field?

Billington, Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright basically wanted to examine if our cognitive style could predict our future in terms of education; for example, would empathetic people be more likely to study subjects like education or social work, and would systematic people be more likely to study subjects like maths and physics? They were researching whether cognitive style was a better predictor than sex. So, rather than “more men enter science”, we would say “more systematic thinkers enter science”.

The researchers defined systemising and empathising:

  • Systemising is a drive and ability to analyse the rules underlying a system, in order to predict its behaviour.
  • Empathising is both the drive and ability to identify another’s mental states and to respond to these with one of a range of appropriate emotions.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Aims

  1. To retest the sex ratio in physical sciences and humanities.
  2. To retest if males show the S>E profile and if females show the E>S profile using performance tests and questionnaires.
  3. To test if physical science students show the S>E profile and if humanities students show the E>S profile using performance tests and questionnaires.
  4. To test if cognitive style (i.e. S>E or E>S) is a better predictor than sex (i.e. female or male) in explaining a person’s enrolment into a physical science or humanities subject.

Sample
415 students (203 males and 212 females) of either a physical science or humanities subject were selected from an online data base. Their average age was 21 years old, 87.7% of them were right handed, 10.6% were left handed and 1.7% were ambidextrous. The students were recruited through an email post and university advertisements. A prize draw was used as an incentive.

Participants were excluded if they had any history of psychiatric illnesses.

The physical science degree subjects were: mathematics, physics, chemistry, computer science, geology, engineering, manufacturing engineering, chemical engineering, astronomy, astrophysics, communications, mineral science, material science, geophysics and physical natural sciences.

The humanities degree subjects were: philosophy, English, history, music, education, drama, languages, linguistics, classics, architecture, law, theology, oriental studies, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Studies, history and philosophy of science and the history of art.

Procedure
The participants were given questionnaires and performance tasks online, via a secure university website. Every participant had to give their sex, date of birth, handedness, diagnoses of medical conditions, educational level and degree type – among other information. The questionnaires and performance tasks could be completed in any order and at any time, including in multiple sessions, but each task and questionnaire could only be carried out once.

Two questionnaires were used in this study: the SQ-R (Systemising Quotient, revised) and the EQ (Empathising Quotient).

Systemising Quotient
This questionnaire originally consisted of 40 items but was later revised (SQ-R) and then consisted of 75 items. The minimum possible score was 0 and the maximum was 150. The SQ-R had gender-neutral items and improved psychometric properties.

Empathising Quotient
This was a 40-item questionnaire which measured different aspects of empathy. For example, items such as “I am good at predicting what someone will do” tested cognitive empathy while items like “I usually stay emotionally detached while watching a film” measured affective empathy.

In both questionnaires, participants had to choose one of four options: ‘definitely agree’, ‘slightly agree’, ‘slightly disagree’ and ‘definitely disagree’. About half of the items were reverse-scored to avoid response bias (choosing the same option repeatedly). A brain type was also calculated for each participant: Type S (systematic), Type E (empathetic), Type B (balanced), Extreme Type E and Extreme Type S.

Two performance tests were also used: the FC-EFT (forced choice embedded figures test) and the Eyes Test.

FC-EFT
This was a forced choice version of the “embedded figures test”. It involved selecting one of two possible answers. The participants had to find the small black and white shape in one of two larger and more complex diagrams. They had 50 seconds to make a decision.

An example of an item in the FC-EFT

Eyes Test
This was a four-choice task which tested cognitive empathy. Participants had to choose one of four words that best described what the person in the picture was thinking or feeling, but they could only see the person’s eyes. They had 20 seconds to choose their answer.

An example of an item in the Eyes Test

Results
The following findings were seen in this study.

  • There was a difference in sex with regards to students of physical sciences and humanities.
    More physical science students were male, more humanities students were female.
  • Questionnaire results showed that there was a significant relationship between sex and cognitive style.
    More males were systematic, more females were empathetic.

The table above shows the top scores in red. Can you see where females excelled and where males excelled?

  • Males were more likely to have a Type S or Extreme Type S brain type.
  • Females were more likely to have a Type E or Extreme Type E brain type.

Sex and Brain Type

  • Physical science students were more likely to have Type S or Extreme Type S brain types.
  • Humanities students were more likely to have Type E or Extreme Type E brain types.

Degree and Brain Type

Type of research method
This was a self-reporting research method, specifically: the use of questionnaires and tests.

Strengths

  1. Replicable:The procedure was standardised for all participants. Although there is the issue about duration (participants could do some of the test and leave the rest for later so it was not continuous), the main procedure is easily replicable and therefore the reliability of the results can be checked.
  2. Quantitative data: The data being collected was in the form of statistics, numbers and figures. This means it can easily be analysed and will take less time to organise. Although it is not as detailed as qualitative data, it is objective and that is a big strength.

Weaknesses

  1. Sample selection bias: Since every participant volunteered to be a part of this study, it creates a problem of representativeness. It is possible that the sample all had something in common which made them sign up for the study. Although the sample size is relatively large, it still has some limitations, especially in terms of selection; there was no random, unbiased selection.
  2. Lack of control: There was not much control in the experiment. There was no way to ensure that the correct participant was the one carrying out the study, there was the issue of participants being able to leave the study in-between and continue it later, and there was no standard environment that the participants took part in; some may have carried out the tasks in a busy, loud coffee shop while others sat in a quiet living room at home.

Ethical issues

  1. Informed consent: This was obtained.
  2. Deception: There was no deception.
  3. Confidentiality: All personal details of the participants were kept confidential.
  4. Emotional and physical harm: No harm was inflicted on the sample.
  5. The right to withdraw:All participants had the right to withdraw.
  6. Debriefing:Participants were told of the nature of the study but there was no need for deep debriefing as no deception had taken place.

Reference: Billington, J., Baron-Cohen, S. and Wheelwright, S. (2007). Cognitive style predicts entry into physical sciences and humanities; Questionnaire and performance tests of empathy and systemizing. Learning and Individual Differences.