Today renowned psychology professor Richard Wiseman tweeted something that jogged my memory in an interesting way.
To understand someone’s behaviour it’s often helpful to think ‘Under what circumstances would I behave like that?’
— Richard Wiseman (@RichardWiseman) January 10, 2015
It got me thinking about empathy, the ability to feel and share another person’s emotions, and respond to them accordingly. To me this is a vital skill, and I believe that most of the people I know whom you would describe as “nice” are ones who are highly empathetic.
However, not everyone is equipped with this skill equally. We all know people who have a hard time socialising, or understanding why other people react the way they do. This is particularly one of the characteristics of people with autism spectrum disorders.
According to another psychology professor, one of the leading autism researchers Simon Baron-Cohen1, people’s personalities can be classified into five brain types according to their score on two dimensions: empathising and systematising. If you get a really high quotient on one, you’re typically low on the other, except for the ‘balanced’ types who have similar scores on both dimensions.2
To find out your EQ and SQ, all you need to do is fill out two questionnaires with 60 questions each, or a combined one. This yields you a score, which then points to a ‘brain type’. After testing a fair number of people against these scales and noticing that males tend to score higher in the systematising department than females, Baron-Cohen and his colleagues proposed a theory of “the extreme male brain” of autism, because autism spectrum disorders are more prevalent in males.
Now, this theory, which proposes innate gender differences, has been criticised and remains controversial, because the low male ranking in empathy may just be explained with high competitiveness, which would give them evolutionary advantage. Thus you don’t necessarily need to be a male to be a high systematiser, and the two quotients are not in direct negative correlation with each other. There are other caveats as well, such as lack of consistent evidence in different age groups, and even notes on whether the questions, if they were phrased differently, would influence the results.
Still, even if we can’t use the empathising-systematising scale to fully explain autism, it is a useful insight into different cognitive styles that people have. Perhaps you have a friend who is really into weather patterns, aeroplanes, and engineering, but going to a bar and hanging out with strangers fill them with dread. What you have there is an extreme systematiser. Our ability to empathise varies, and it’s useful to remember that some of us struggle with it more than others.
Now, can we practice empathy and get better at it? I’ll have to look into that tomorrow.
Bonus: if you want to find out your own E-S score, there are a few tests online you can try, such as this one.