An analysis of the empathising-systemising theory: a new typology of sex differences in psychological functions and the particular role of prenatal testosterone

Chiara Horlin

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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[Truncated abstract] A new theoretical framework for understanding sex differences in psychological functioning has recently been proposed. This theory suggests that the relative balance of two little studied domains, empathising and systemising, are vital to gaining insight into psychological differences between males and females. Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathising-Systemising (hereafter E-S) theory (Baron-Cohen, 2003) posits that two personality dimensions or factors explain the social and non-social features of autism spectrum conditions as well as sex differences in cognitive functioning. According to Baron-Cohen’s theory, the empathising domain encompasses both the cognitive and affective components of empathy and is reflected in an individual’s preference and propensity for empathising-related behaviours and experiences (Baron-Cohen, 2009). The systemising domain encompasses the predilection for analysing or constructing rule-based and predictable systems. The defining feature of systems is their dependence on regularities, input-output operations and if-then logical reasoning (Baron-Cohen, 2009). Baron-Cohen argues that differences in the relative balance of empathising and systemising tendencies drives the differences in behaviours between males and females, and between typically developing populations and individuals with autism spectrum conditions. Baron-Cohen also states that relative differences in systemising and empathising do not equate to differences in general intelligence (Baron-Cohen, 2005), but that these domains may drive interest, motivation and performance in a variety of ability areas that have, up until now, been conceived of as verbal and spatial ability. Baron- Cohen suggests a fundamental biological mechanism at the root of this relative balance in dimensions is prenatal testosterone. The prenatal period of testosterone secretion is thought to produce a neurological basis for the differential psychological profiles typically exhibited between males and females. This thesis examines the manifestation of these psychological profiles in typically developing children and their potential relationship with a proximal marker of prenatal testosterone concentration, the second-to-fourth digit ratio (2D:4D). The suitability of using the empathising and systemising dimensions as a stronger and more appropriate typology of cognitive and affective sex differences than the conventional verbal and spatial ability distinction is also investigated. Much of the literature and research into the E-S theory of sex differences is dominated by self-report measures of every-day characteristics, behaviours and preferences thought to reflect the empathising and systemising domains. To date no comprehensive analysis of this theory and the psychological profiles it predicts has been conducted using primarily performance-based measures of the empathising and systemising dimensions. Investigation of these dimensions using performance-based measures has the advantage of assessing an individual’s objective capacity rather than subjective judgments of their own behaviour and skills...
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2010


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