College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine

Men miss social cues, study shows

It's true what women say - they are better at reading others than men.

Researchers have shown that women outperform men in tests of their social cognition - the way we understand and respond to cues in other people’s behaviour.

Scientists made their findings by studying the brain activity of three groups of people.

Thse were a group of men with Asperger’s syndrome - an autism-spectrum disorder, that impairs social brain functioning - a group of men and a group of women without the condition.

Cognitive tests

Volunteers taking part in the University study underwent scans to show which areas of their brains were activated in two social tasks.

One involved deciding whether or not faces they were shown looked approachable, while the other task asked people to decide if individuals were intelligent or not.

MRI scans tracked blood flow through the brain, to reveal which areas were being used in the volunteer’s decision-making process.

Learning social rules

The results showed that both groups of men experienced increased blood flow to frontal areas of the brain responsible for social function compared with the group of women.

The team says its findings suggest that men’s brains have to work harder when making social decisions to make up for the fact that their brains are naturally less efficient at the tasks.

It could mean that men have learned to compensate for their brains’ lesser ability to process subtle social cues.

Men appear to have developed strategies to compensate for their lesser natural empathy by over-activating the parts of the brain that understand social cues. This is also seen in people with autism-linked conditions, and it suggests that we could devise new tools to help patients learn social rules and enhance their skills for engaging with other people.

Professor Stephen LawrieHead of Psychiatry at the University

The results are published in the PLoS One journal.