Making friends is tough for teenagers. Making friends with the opposite sex can be even tougher. Our research, published in the Journal of Personality, suggests empathy may be the key to developing friendships, and may be especially important for young men establishing supportive friendships with young women.
We studied almost 2,000 year 10 students (with an average age of 15.7 years) across 16 schools. First we asked them to rate their own empathy, through statements such as, “When someone is feeling down, I can usually understand how they feel.”
We then asked them to list up to five male and five female peers they considered their closest friends.
The results were surprising. We found boys received 1.8 more friendship nominations from girls if they were high in empathy, compared to boys low in empathy. In contrast, empathy did not help girls to attract more male friends.
Social connection is critical to positive development. It’s like nutrition: remove it and people are more likely to become depressed and unhealthy.
We’re not entirely sure why females are so good at detecting empathy in boys. Our best guess is that empathy detection helps females to stay safe. Unempathetic males are more likely to be aggressive and violent. So females need to be good at detecting males who are supportive and can take perspective and act with kindness: males high in empathy.
But having many friends doesn’t mean having many good friends. In addition to measuring the number of friends, we measured the supportiveness of friendships with questions such as: My close friend(s) … “give me advice”, “help me when I need it”, “spend time with me when I’m lonely”, and “accept me when I make a mistake”.
This friendship support measure again revealed important gender differences. The more friends a boy had, the more they felt supported. Not so for girls. Their sense of being supported was more determined by the quality of their friendships, rather than the quantity.
Most importantly, adolescents high in empathy were more likely to have highly supportive friends. This was the case for boys and girls.
Friends are essential for positive adolescent development. We need to help young men and women to improve their empathy, by scaling up empathy training in high schools, for instance.
This will not only help young people build supportive, long-lasting friendships. It could also help reduce violence towards girls and women.
The first step to promoting empathy involves teaching young people to value the capacity to comprehend the emotions of another person. Some young men think empathy makes you weak or a “nice guy” who does not “get the girl”. Our research dispels this myth. Instead, it shows that supportive, opposite-sex friendships are good for them, even if the friendships are platonic.