Yesterday, journalists at Huffington Post Live asked me to comment on whether women are more compassionate than men. Scientists in general tend to cringe at any strong black-and-white statements of this kind since we know there is no data to support such strong claims. If you ask a neuroscientist to distinguish a male from a female brain, for example, s/he would have a difficult time doing so. Although differences have been detected (for example, women appear to make greater use of both hemispheres of the brain and therefore have a slightly thicker corpus callosum—the part of the brain that bridges the two hemispheres), the differences are subtle and there is no single area of the brain that we can say clearly distinguishes a male brain from a female brain.

Compassion is Innate

Moreover, whether they are researching animals or humans, males or females, scientists find that compassion is innate and instinctual across the board. As I discussed at length in my previous post, research with animals and humans shows that we naturally have an impulse to help others who are suffering. This tendency, that Dacher Keltner has coined the “compassionate instinct,” seems to have ensured our survival. Research by Stanford University’s Robert Sapolsky suggests that this instinct is linked to thriving and improved reproduction in primates. In other words, compassion is natural and no gender differences have emerged across these studies.

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Dr. Emma Seppala

Associate Director at CCARE
Emma Seppala is the Associate Director at CCARE as well as a Research Scientist and Honorary Fellow with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. Her areas of expertise are health psychology, well-being, and resilience. She has examined the impact of meditation on happiness, social connection, and compassion.