Menus Subscribe Search

Why She Cries at Movies, While He Snores

• September 17, 2012 • 4:08 PM

New research finds men and women feel sympathy for fictional characters for different reasons.

Think back to the first time you saw West Side Story. Didn’t you feel for Tony and Maria, the racially mixed couple whose poignant love story ends in tragedy?

If your answer is “no,” chances are you are a man.

Let us stipulate immediately that this does not prove men are unfeeling pigs. Rather, the impulse to sympathize with a fictional character seems to be triggered in different ways for males and females.

At least, that’s the conclusion of a new study by psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner, which tracked reactions to Leonard Bernstein’s musical theater masterpiece. It found men tend to sympathize with the people on stage only if they are personally moved by their plight.

For women, merely perceiving a character is in pain is sufficient to elicit feelings of compassion.

“We speculate that males may be more self-focused,” the authors write in the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts. “Only if they experience personal distress do they feel sympathy.”

The researchers surveyed audience members at two performances of West Side Story and two of Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues—a total of 173 women and 86 men. (Although they don’t break it down, it’s highly likely that the men were at the musical, since audiences at The Vagina Monologues tend to be overwhelmingly female.)

The questionnaire, filled out immediately after the performance, specified four moments from the show “chosen for their intense negative emotional content.” Goldstein, who had previously acted in both shows, selected scenes she believed would stimulate the strongest emotional responses in the audience, including the one in which (spoiler alert!) Maria watches Tony die.

Theatergoers were asked five questions for each of those four heart-wrenching moments: What emotion was the character in question feeling in this scene? How strongly did he or she feel this emotion? What emotion were you experiencing during this scene? How strongly did you feel it? And finally: How sorry did you feel for this character in this scene? They answered each on a one-to-seven scale (“not at all” to “extremely”).

The results surprised the researchers. Women were likely to sympathize with a character if they perceived him or her to be in pain. For men, however, this intellectual understanding was often insufficient. Rather, they were much more likely to sympathize with a character if they personally felt sad or distressed.

Needless to say, these results reflect statistical trends; there were plenty of exceptions in the audiences studied. That said, the researchers found this gender split held true for all ages (participants in the study ranged from 13 to 83). If it’s a learned response, boys apparently acquire it quite early.

In men’s defense, when their emotions were aligned with that of the character, their sympathy became quite intense. So we males are not inherently cold-hearted; we just have to register the feeling within ourselves in order to emotionally connect with the person on stage or on the screen.

Perhaps that’s why so many husbands fall asleep in foreign films. They can’t relate to the unfamiliar plot or setting, and thus don’t connect with the characters—as opposed to their wives, who respond to the basic fact that they’re watching people suffer.

“It is often assumed that emotional empathy leads directly to sympathy,” Goldstein and Winner conclude. “Our findings show this is true for males, but not for females. For females, sympathy was based more on their judgments of the level of the character’s pain.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


August 22 • 6:17 AM

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.


August 22 • 6:00 AM

Long Live Short Novels

Christopher Beha’s Arts & Entertainments comes in at less than 300 pages long, which—along with a plot centered on a sex-tape scandal—makes it a uniquely efficient pleasure.


August 22 • 4:00 AM

Why ‘Nature Versus Nurture’ Often Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense to try to separate the social and the biological.


August 21 • 4:00 PM

Julie Chen Explains Why She Underwent Westernizing Surgery

The CBS news anchor and television personality’s story proves that cosmetic surgeries aren’t always vanity projects, even if they’re usually portrayed that way.


August 21 • 2:37 PM

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There’s heightened functional connectivity between the brain’s emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.


August 21 • 2:00 PM

Cracking Down on the Use of Restraints in Schools

Federal investigators found that children at two Virginia schools were being regularly pinned down or isolated and that their education was suffering as a result.


August 21 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, School Principal?

Noah Davis talks to Evan Glazer about why kids aren’t getting smarter and what his school’s doing in order to change that.



August 21 • 10:00 AM

Why My Neighbors Still Use Dial-Up Internet

It’s not because they want to. It’s because they have no other choice.


August 21 • 8:15 AM

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.


August 21 • 8:00 AM

To Fight the Obesity Epidemic Americans Will Have to First Recognize That They’re Obese

There is a void in the medical community’s understanding of how families see themselves and understand their weight.


August 21 • 6:33 AM

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.


August 21 • 6:00 AM

The Fox News Effect

Whatever you think of its approach, Fox News has created a more conservative Congress and a more polarized electorate, according to a series of recent studies.


August 21 • 4:00 AM

Do Children Help Care for the Family Pet?

Or does mom do it all?


August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


Follow us


The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

When Mothers Sing, Premature Babies Thrive

Moms willing to serenade pre-term infants help their babies—and themselves.

One Toxic Boss Can Poison the Whole Workplace

Office leaders who bully even just one member of their team harm everyone.

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.