Teenage boys lag behind girls in developing ‘critical social skills’

by Grace

According to a six-year Dutch study, teenage boys are slower to develop two social skills.

Cognitive empathy — “the mental ability to take others’ perspective”

Affective empathy — “the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings”

In adolescence, critical social skills that are needed to feel concern for other people and understand how they think are undergoing major changes. Adolescence has long been known as prime time for developing cognitive skills for self-control, or executive function.

“Cognitive empathy,” or the mental ability to take others’ perspective, begins rising steadily in girls at age 13, according to a six-year study published recently in Developmental Psychology. But boys don’t begin until age 15 to show gains in perspective-taking, which helps in problem-solving and avoiding conflict.

Adolescent males actually show a temporary decline, between ages 13 and 16, in a related skill—affective empathy, or the ability to recognize and respond to others’ feelings, according to the study, co-authored by Jolien van der Graaff, a doctoral candidate in the Research Centre Adolescent Development at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Fortunately, the boys’ sensitivity recovers in the late teens. Girls’ affective empathy remains relatively high and stable through adolescence.

Affective and cognitive empathy are valuable skills in the school setting, and these gender differences could help explain why boys score as well as or better than girls on most standardized tests, yet they are far less likely to get good grades, take advanced classes or attend college”.

The scholars attributed this “misalignment” to differences in “noncognitive skills”: attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently. As most parents know, girls tend to develop these skills earlier and more naturally than boys.

Testosterone and social pressure may both be determining factors.

The decline in affective empathy among young teenage boys may spring at least partly from a spurt during puberty in testosterone, sparking a desire for dominance and power …

Boys also feel pressure from peers and some adults to “act like a man,” which they often define as being detached, tough, funny and strong …

How much do fathers matter?

Fathers seem to play a special role. Teens whose fathers are supportive, who say they feel better after talking over their worries with their dads, are more skilled at perspective-taking, says a 2011 study of 15- to 18-year-old boys in Developmental Psychology.

Ambiguous terminology in the use of “cognitive” and “noncognitive” can be confusing.  The term”noncognitive” seems to vary in meaning depending on context.  Daniel Willingham helps explain how it is sometimes used as shorthand for what many people consider “non-academic” skills.

“Non-cognitive factors” is a misleading but entrenched catch-all term for factors such as motivation, grit, self-regulation, social skills. . . in short, mental constructs that we think contribute to student success, but that don’t contribute directly to the sorts of academic outcomes we measure, in the way that, say, vocabulary or working memory do.

Boys can try to catch up to girls.

I keep hearing that boys tend to shape up and mature after freshman year in high school.  That has not been my observation, but even if they do this just means they have to catch up to girls in a few short years or else suffer long-term consequences from getting off track in their early teen years.


Sue Shellenbarger, “Teens Are Still Developing Empathy Skills”, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 15, 2013.


4 Comments to “Teenage boys lag behind girls in developing ‘critical social skills’”

  1. I really don’t think the development of empathy has much to do with “attentiveness, persistence, eagerness to learn, the ability to sit still and work independently”. I have never read anything that linked executive function to empathy (and I have been reading quite a bit on that topic lately!). I also think there are a lot of middle school girls who are very skilled at what the authors call “affective empathy” who have no sense of “cognitive empathy” at all (which is what I consider to be true empathy – a very difficult skill that many never acquire). I have met quite a few boys who have a good sense of cognitive empathy but no skill at affective empathy. In fact, that may be true of most adult men!!!

    Girls do seem to have an advantage at reading people. I have seen a lot of research that says this is a key difference. The theory I have seen advanced is that girls arrive with a slight advantage in responding to human faces, and over time via feedback loop (little Susie responds, mom reacts by shoving her face at little Susie even more frequently), this builds into a big advantage. But the ability to read people and to respond in a socially appropriate manner is not the same thing as true empathy. Many middle school girls are downright cruel because they can play people on an emotional level without really understanding what they are doing to other people. True empathy develops over the teen years and I think is equally prevalent in both men and women.


  2. I could see the connection between empathy and the social skills needed to do well in classrooms. Being able to take the teacher’s perspective, for example, could motivate a student to sit still and be persistent.

    “without really understanding what they are doing to other people”
    This is an interesting point. They may “really” understand what they’re doing, but lack the maturity (or whatever) to understand the negative long-term consequences. The integration of short-term and long-term perspective is an aspect of maturity, and is certainly a common problem among adolescents. But what I read is that this is another area where boys lag.


  3. Middle school girls are mean because they do understand the consequences, and know there won’t be any. They haven’t developed the ability to really feel what another person is feeling, which is the thing that would stop them.Having real empathy does develop from maturity, because you need to be old enough to have experienced a wide range of emotions and experiences before you can understand what another person is feeling. But I don’t think it has much to do with social skills.


  4. When I referred to “negative long-term consequences” at 1:30, I meant the damaging consequences felt by the target and even by by the perpetrator.

    “They haven’t developed the ability to really feel what another person is feeling”

    I doubt that. Some of it is mindless, but many know exactly what the other person is feeling.

    I just see a strong connection between the development of many social skills and ability to empathize. I think most people will be motivated to get along with others when they understand the other person’s perspective.


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