Column One; Charm: you either have it or you're male

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SCIENTISTS HAVE at last discovered what mothers have always known - charm is inherited rather than learnt. And, to no one's surprise, they have confirmed that women have more of it than men.

The capacity to read social situations and respond to the myriad signals that humans give off can mean the difference between popularity and loneliness; it can smooth the road to social and professional success. The capacity underpins the uniquely human skill of forging relationships - and is in growing demand in a world where dealing with people is vital.

Results of a study of 670 pairs of twins aged 5 to 17 found the girls had a "charm" score 23 per cent higher than the boys. Just over half of the group were identical twins, sharing 100 per cent of their genes while the remainder were fraternal, sharing 50 per cent, the same as ordinary siblings. Analysis of the results showed genes accounted for 70 per cent of difference in charm scores - not a single gene for charm but a clutch of them.

The findings cast an intriguing light on the modern social ills of suicide and violence - driven, it is claimed, by the plight of men in a world where women are going from strength to strength. Parents wish for intelligence, beauty and physical prowess in their children, but charm may matter more.

The scores were based on a questionnaire, completed by the parents, designed to measure the children's level of "social cognition" - the capacity to understand and respond to other people. Questions sought details of the children's awareness of their own and others' feelings, the impact of their behaviour on the family, and if they knew when they were angry.

A psychiatrist, Jane Scourfield of the University of Wales, and her colleagues, who publish their findings in the British Journal of Psychiatry, say the poor showing of the boys is in line with other research. Although both sexes improved with age as they learnt to pick up social cues, the boys never caught up with the girls.

The differing charm quotients of men and women may reflect evolutionary pressures. Women need empathy and the capacity to read social cues for their nurturing role whereas sensitivity could be a disadvantage for male hunter-gatherers. The psychiatrists define social cognition as "those aspects of higher cognitive function which underlie smooth social interactions".

One of the authors, Professor Peter McGuffin of the Institute of Psychiatry, said: "It would be possible to construct an argument that men are at a disadvantage when it comes to charm and social skills."