Scientists Discover Link Between Great Empathy Skills and Being Bad at Math

This theory may also support the idea that anxious math teachers make for anxious students.


New research from neuroscientists at Stanford University suggests that a child’s empathy can be linked to her or his math skills. When young children — aged 7 to 12 — ranked higher on a questionnaire that evaluated their empathetic dispositions, they fared worse at math problems like subtraction, multiplication, or geometry. The researchers don’t know the exactly why this is — but they say it could corroborate earlier studies of female students who reflect their teacher’s own math anxieties, which in turn can propagate negative stereotypes about women and math.

In a study of 114 children with roughly average IQs and typical development — and just over half girls — the researchers quizzed them on numbers and calculations, asking questions like: “Four people each have six dollars. How much money do they have together?” The scientists also gave a quiz to the kids’ parents, asking them to evaluate not just their offspring’s empathy but also their levels of “systemizing” — how analytical the children were. “Surprisingly, children with higher empathy demonstrated lower calculation skills,” the researchers wrote in the journal Scientific Reports.

Escovar et al., Scientific Reports 2016

Escovar et al., Scientific Reports 2016

The Stanford team hadn’t set out to explicitly investigate empathy, though. Rather, they were exploring the theory of the empathizing-systemizing scale, psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s with a specific interest in math and systemization.

While working with people with autism, Baron-Cohen (yup, he’s the cousin of Sacha) developed a theory that women are driven stronger to empathy — that is, when the feelings of others alter your own feelings. Men, and people with autism, are more likely to focus on analytic approaches. (However, the gendered aspect of the theory has come under fire

In this Scientific Reports study, what the researchers didn’t find is almost as significant as what they did — no significant relationship between systemization and math; no overall difference in calculation skills between boys and girls; and no correlation between empathy and systematization (suggesting that, perhaps, the psychologists arguing for Machiavellianism might be on the right track.) Curiously, while high empathy was correlated with lower math scores, reading wasn’t affected. This, the authors write, points “against a broad effect of empathizing leading to divided attention in the classroom and suggesting instead that sensitivity to emotional states may be particularly detrimental during mathematics instruction.”

The scientists’ next call is for more research, stopping short of offering suggestions like training children to be callous, brilliant mathematicians who know the box method.

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