Boys with strong empathy skills attracted an average of 1.8 more girl friendships than boys with lower levels of empathy, according to a landmark study by the Institute for Positive Psychology and Education at Australian Catholic University.
The researchers defined cognitive empathy as the capacity to understand the emotions of another person.
In contrast, girls high in empathy did not attract more male friends, as boys didn’t seem to feel that this character trait was a high priority in their friendships. This didn’t seem to bother empathic girls, however, who still reported an overall feeling of friendship support.
“The more friendship nominations a boy received from either boys or girls, the more they felt supported by their friends; the number of friendship nominations received by girls, in contrast, had no effect on their felt support by friends,” said lead researcher Dr. Joseph Ciarrochi.
“Regardless of the quantity of friendship nominations, empathy was linked to more supportive friendships for both males and females.”
The study is the first to examine the extent that adolescent males and females select empathic classmates as friends. The researchers interviewed 1,970 students (average age of 15.7 years) in Queensland and New South Wales.
They asked students to nominate up to five of their closest male and five closest female friends in the same year. Students were also asked questions such as “when someone is feeling down, I can usually understand how they feel,” and “I can often understand how people are feeling even before they tell me.”
And using what is called the “Friendship Subscale” of the Student Social Support Scale, students made selections from the following: My close friend…, gives me advice, helps me when I need it, spends time with me when I’m lonely, accepts me when I make a mistake, calms me down when I’m nervous about something, understands my feelings, and explains things when I’m confused.
“Friends are essential to positive adolescent development. It’s well established that in addition to providing companionship, close friendships promote the development of interpersonal skills, learning, and growth. Having friends has also been linked with lower rates of depression and, to people feeling good about themselves,” said Ciarrochi.
“This research suggests it is critical to identify and teach young people the skills they need to develop supportive friendships. To that end, our study provides a contextual understanding of the role of empathy in selecting and maintaining friendships.”
The study is published in the Journal of Personality.
Source: Australian Catholic University