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.