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18.4.03

A long chain of bloggers point to this article, in which Simon Baron-Cohen says:
Are there essential differences between the male and female brain? My theory is that the female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy, and that the male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems. I call it the empathising-systemising (E-S) theory.

Empathising is the drive to identify another person's emotions and thoughts, and to respond to these with an appropriate emotion. The empathiser intuitively figures out how people are feeling, and how to treat people with care and sensitivity. Systemising is the drive to analyse and explore a system, to extract underlying rules that govern the behaviour of a system; and the drive to construct systems. The systemiser intuitively figures out how things work, or what the underlying rules are controlling a system. Systems can be as varied as a pond, a vehicle, a computer, a maths equation, or even an army unit. They all operate on inputs and deliver outputs, using rules.


The descriptions of empathy and systematizing strike me as nearly the same thing. Both involve "intuitively" grasping the workings of some process. At best it seems like empathy is about social processes and systematizing is about physical processes. This interpretation would accord with the (similar but different) theory that men tend toward seeing the world in a distanced and (supposedly) objective way, whereas women are subjective.

So I took the test, and got an 18 out of 80 for my EQ. The description says "most people with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism score about 20." Now, I'd hardly rank "empathy" as one of my strongest traits, but I didn't think it was pathological. Incidentally, the test says that men score an average of 42 and women an average of 47. This seems to call into question the study's finding of a clear gender division. Unless the standard deviation on those scores is incredibly low -- meaning nearly all men hit the 40-44 or so range, and nearly all women are 45 to 49 -- the correlation is probably not statistically significant. On the SQ test I didn't hit autistic range, falling just a point above the male average of 30. The gender difference here was a bit wider, with women averaging 24.

The brain type page includes this observation:
The central claim of this new theory is only that on average, more males than females have a brain of type S, and more females than males have a brain of type E.

An "on average" isn't all that helpful. On average men are taller than women, but nobody would say that's the basis of a fundamental difference between them. Systematizing and empathizing are important aspects of psychology, and one good thing about this theory is that it considers them as separate axes, rather than opposites (so you could be both highly empathizing and highly systematizing). But aligning them fundamentally with men and women is asking for stereotypes no matter how many disclaimers about overlap in individual cases you have. If the "essential difference" between men and women is the E-S dimensions, that automatically puts empathetic men and systematic women on the defensive about their abnormality.

Here's the thing that bugs me the most about this theory: it's not new. The idea that women are empathetic and men are systematic dates back at least to Aristotle, and was a central piece of Enlightenment theories of gender. A large proportion of feminist writing has been devoted to exploring this idea. The basis of Enligtenment sexism can be summarized by the following syllogism:
1) Men are more rational (i.e., systematizing but not empathetic) than women.
2) Rationality is better than other forms of understanding.
3) Therefore men are better than women.
Feminism has taken two tacks at breaking down this logic. Liberal feminism has attacked the first premise, arguing that women can be just as rational as men. Radical feminism has tended to attack the second premise, claiming that empathetic understanding is just as valid (or even more so) than rationality, which they see as a vestige of the Enlightenment. Many radical feminists have proudly affirmed the first premise, arguing for the superiority of women's understanding on that basis. This has led them to be criticized by liberal feminists, who accuse them of essentializing.

E-S theory is simply slapping a new name on a set of ideas that have been around for a long time.

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