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Gender trumps politics when it comes to understanding others’ minds – study

Being female and educated are the biggest factors when it comes to being able to understand or read other people’s minds, a new study suggests.

For their study, University of Bath psychologists looked at qualities associated with understanding others such as agreeableness, picking up on subtle clues and self-reflection.

In psychology, this is known as “theory of mind” – the capacity to understand other people by attributing mental states to them.

The psychologists say their findings may be “socially important”, might help to break down some artificially constructed barriers, and improve understanding between people.

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The results, based on an analysis of 4,000 people, represent averages, but they argue the study is an important reminder about the drivers of agreement and disagreement in public life.

Senior author Dr Punit Shah, associate professor and leading expert on social cognitive processing at the University of Bath, explains: “In a world where it seems increasingly difficult to hold and express different points of view, it is crucial that we understand the barriers to connecting with other people.

“Political views are often thought of as such a barrier, but our research actually shows that a person’s politics is not, in fact, linked to how well they understand others.

“Importantly, we didn’t just find an absence of evidence for a political link in the study.

“The analyses also provided evidence of absence for this link.

“This is a socially important finding that might help to break down some artificially constructed barriers between people and ultimately improve understanding between different people in our society.”

He added: “Historically male perspectives have been prioritised in society.

“We are of course seeing this narrative diminish over time, and research like ours adds extra evidence to highlight the important role of education and being female for social understanding and cohesion in society – far more so than politics.”

To conduct the study, the researchers asked members of the public to provide details about their background, as well as to score their political beliefs (ranging from 1 = very liberal, to 7 = very conservative).

Further, they used a mind reading test to ascertain how well people understood what others were thinking.

Developed by the same team in 2021, the test poses a series of statements, such as “I can usually understand another person’s viewpoint, even if it differs from my own”, and “I find it easy to put myself in somebody else’s shoes”.

Lead researcher Dr Rachel Clutterbuck emphasised these findings could improve our understanding of social differences between people.

She said: “The reasons for why some people are better at understanding others are not well understood, but this research provides a glimpse into some individual differences, such as gender, which may help to explain these social differences.”

The findings are published in the journal Plos One.