Think back to the first time you saw West Side Story. Didn’t you feel for Tony and Maria, the racially mixed couple whose poignant love story ends in tragedy?
If your answer is “no,” chances are you are a man.
Let us stipulate immediately that this does not prove men are unfeeling pigs. Rather, the impulse to sympathize with a fictional character seems to be triggered in different ways for males and females.
At least, that’s the conclusion of a new study by psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner, which tracked reactions to Leonard Bernstein’s musical theater masterpiece. It found men tend to sympathize with the people on stage only if they are personally moved by their plight.
For women, merely perceiving a character is in pain is sufficient to elicit feelings of compassion.
“We speculate that males may be more self-focused,” the authors write in the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts. “Only if they experience personal distress do they feel sympathy.”
The researchers surveyed audience members at two performances of West Side Story and two of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues—a total of 173 women and 86 men. (Although they don’t break it down, it’s highly likely that the men were at the musical, since audiences at The Vagina Monologues tend to be overwhelmingly female.)
The questionnaire, filled out immediately after the performance, specified four moments from the show “chosen for their intense negative emotional content.” Goldstein, who had previously acted in both shows, selected scenes she believed would stimulate the strongest emotional responses in the audience, including the one in which (spoiler alert!) Maria watches Tony die.
Theatergoers were asked five questions for each of those four heart-wrenching moments: What emotion was the character in question feeling in this scene? How strongly did he or she feel this emotion? What emotion were you experiencing during this scene? How strongly did you feel it? And finally: How sorry did you feel for this character in this scene? They answered each on a one-to-seven scale (“not at all” to “extremely”).
The results surprised the researchers. Women were likely to sympathize with a character if they perceived him or her to be in pain. For men, however, this intellectual understanding was often insufficient. Rather, they were much more likely to sympathize with a character if they personally felt sad or distressed.
Needless to say, these results reflect statistical trends; there were plenty of exceptions in the audiences studied. That said, the researchers found this gender split held true for all ages (participants in the study ranged from 13 to 83). If it’s a learned response, boys apparently acquire it quite early.
In men’s defense, when their emotions were aligned with that of the character, their sympathy became quite intense. So we males are not inherently cold-hearted; we just have to register the feeling within ourselves in order to emotionally connect with the person on stage or on the screen.
Perhaps that’s why so many husbands fall asleep in foreign films. They can’t relate to the unfamiliar plot or setting, and thus don’t connect with the characters—as opposed to their wives, who respond to the basic fact that they’re watching people suffer.
“It is often assumed that emotional empathy leads directly to sympathy,” Goldstein and Winner conclude. “Our findings show this is true for males, but not for females. For females, sympathy was based more on their judgments of the level of the character’s pain.”