If you don't understand women's emotions, you must be a man

Experts discover what women have always known: when it comes to finer feelings, their partners don't do sensitivity

Roger Dobson
Sunday 05 June 2005 00:00 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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He can't remember birthdays. He is rubbish with the Hoover. Now it has been claimed that the male of the species cannot even tell when his long-suffering spouse is angry.

Or happy, for that matter. Men's famous lack of emotional intelligence may have a scientific basis, according to British psychologists.

An experiment based on facial recognition at St Andrews University has concluded that a man's brain cannot pick up the facial expressions showing how his partner feels - supporting the long-held view that men are emotionally clueless.

To prove the theory, men and women were shown pictures of faces depicting a range of different feelings, from neutral to intense. The male subjects were substantially worse at spotting emotion and, as predicted, could pick up only sadness, surprise, fear, disgust and anger in the most obvious cases.

One theory is that the different sensitivities have evolved to cater for the different social functions of men and women. According to the researchers: "Women generally fulfil more care-taking roles and would show more intensity in the emotions involved in this role, such as happiness, fear and sadness."

But the contrast could also be linked to physical differences in the brain. Women have more grey matter in parts of the limbic system, which is involved in emotion processing, and also have a larger orbital frontal lobe, an area involved in inhibition of aggressive behaviour.

In the experiment, reported in the journal Cognitive Psychology this week, the researchers used pictures of actors to examine face processing in men and women aged 18 to 30. Each set of images range from zero to full- blooded emotion.

The volunteers were tested for accuracy (whether they picked the right emotion) and sensitivity (whether or not they could pick up subtle signals). Men did badly on both counts.

They were less accurate in spotting disgust, fear and especially sadness and surprise, often failing to recognise the emotion at all.

The psychologists say the men are also less sensitive across the range of feelings because they needed obvious clues even when they got the answer right.

A subtle approach, then, may not be effective in the case of an erring husband or partner. Men were particularly insensitive to anger and disgust. "The results clearly show a higher accuracy in women for sadness and surprise and a higher sensitivity in women for the labelling of facial expressions of anger and disgust, suggesting a general sex difference in the labelling of facial expressions," say the psychologists.

The findings make an interesting parallel with research into the abilities of people with autism - the majority of whom are male - which shows that they are weak at recognising even the most obvious clues in the human face. This has led some authorities to conclude that the condition can be described as an extreme form of maleness.

Other research at the University of California has shown that men can improve on their recognition of facial emotions by learning to "mirror" what they see in others. They found that when people copied the facial expression they see in a partner, they are able to feel what the other person is feeling - a technique also recommended by experts in body language.

Some research shows that women do this more naturally than men. Observational studies suggest that when women are in conversation they empathise more than men, including adopting similar facial expressions.

Practitioners of the mirror technique are said to have included gothic horror novelist Edgar Allan Poe, although it is not known how this affected his prose.

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