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Men really can't read women's emotions, confirmed

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Men have trouble reading women's eyes

A new study reveals that men truly don’t understand women after all. According to research published April 10 in the journal PLOS ONE, men really struggle to read women's emotions, at least when it comes to detecting feelings through women’s eyes.

The research found that men had twice as much trouble figuring out women's emotions by viewing images of their eyes compared to those of men. In men, the portion of their brain linked to emotion did not activate as intensely when they looked at women's eyes.

Although men and women certainly have their gender differences, from a psychological perspective, prior studies have also suggested that men have more trouble figuring out what women are thinking and feelings.

For example, a 2008 study from Indiana University found that, more often than not, men interpret even friendly cues from women – like a subtle smile – as a sexual come-on. More specifically, the I.U. study of college students found men were somewhat oblivious to the emotional subtleties of non-verbal cues.

"Young men just find it difficult to tell the difference between women who are being friendly and women who are interested in something more," said lead researcher Coreen Farris of Indiana University's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Another 2008 study from Harvard also found that women prize men who try to understand them.

"It could be that for women, seeing that their male partner is upset reflects some degree of the man’s investment and emotional engagement in the relationship, even during difficult times," said study researcher Shiri Cohen of Harvard Medical School.

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So for this newest study, Boris Schiffer, a researcher at the LWL-University Hospital in Bochum, Germany and his colleagues wanted to see whether men really did have trouble reading women's emotions. The team therefore put 22 men between the ages of 21 and 52, with an average age of 36, into a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which uses blood flow as a measure to detect brain activity.

The researchers then had the men look at photos of 36 pairs of eyes – half of them were from men and half from women. They then asked the men to guess what emotion the images were evoking by choosing which of two words (e.g. distrustful or terrified) best described the emotion of the people the eyes belonged to. The various eye images depicted positive, neutral and negative emotions.

The researchers found that men exhibited significantly greater problems recognizing emotion than gender – and that they showed greater problems recognizing emotions from female compared to male eyes.

Results also showed that men took longer and had more trouble correctly guessing emotion from the women's eyes. Additionally, their brains showed different activation when looking at men’s eyes versus women's eyes, as the male participant’s amygdala (a brain region tied to emotions) activated more powerfully in response to looking at images of men's eyes. On the contrary, when men looked at women’s eyes, other male brain regions tied to emotion and behavior didn't activate as strongly.

Accordingly, the study’s findings suggest that men are worse at reading women's emotions. The researchers write that this deficit could lead men to have less empathy for women than men.

The precise reason for this is unknown, but it could be that men are culturally conditioned to pay less attention to women's emotional cues, or perhaps the differential response is hard-wired into men’s brains due to their human evolutionary past.

"As men were more involved in hunting and territory fights, it would have been important for them to be able to predict and foresee the intentions and actions of their male rivals," the researchers write in the paper.

SOURCES: Schiffer B, Pawliczek C, Müller BW, Gizewski ER, Walter H (2013) Why Don't Men Understand Women? Altered Neural Networks for Reading the Language of Male and Female Eyes. PLoS ONE 8(4): e60278. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060278