What someone’s facial expressions say depends on your hormones

What someone’s facial expressions say depends on your hormones


Have you ever wondered why many women are “mind readers”, knowing when someone is sad, happy, fearful, impatient, holding onto a big secret or hiding the truth by simply by looking at them, and why they have intense empathy for people in physical or emotional pain–while many men are just the opposite, oblivious to someone’s emotional state and less sympathetic about someone who’s in physical or emotional distress?

Or have you ever noticed that while many men have the ability to detect when someone poses a danger many women miss signs of aggression, with some ending up with a partner who’s violent or trusting a stranger they shouldn’t?

A new sudy in the journal Emotion from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden shows the differences comes down to our hormones–specifically, estrogen and testosterone.

How’d the researchers prove this? On two separate days, they gave 33 women either a dose of testosterone or a hormone-free placebo and 33 men either a dose of estrogen or a hormone-free placebo. Then, on both the hormone-dosed and hormone-free days, they administered a series of three tests to the volunteers that rated their ability to judge emotions from facial expression cues, feel empathy and determine someone’s dominance.

Here’s what they discovered:

When the female subjects received testosterone, they were less accurate in determining someone’s emotional state by looking at them. However, the women were more likely to pick up on facial cues in people that indicated they were angry or aggressive.

When the male subjects received estrogen, their ability to determine people’s emotional states by looking at them didn’t change, however, they did become more empathetic.

Turns out, estrogen fine-tunes your ability to feel someone else’s pain while testosterone fine-tunes your ability to detect threats, yet hampers your ability to detect someone’s emotional state.

Why would would Mother Nature wire males and females so differently? It may be because as we were evolving, women required more cooperation and support since they were tasked with pregnancy and child-rearing–so having estrogen that helped read emotional cues and have more empathy with others led to stronger bonds. And men who were responsible for providing protection needed testosterone to make them more aware of potential threats and not be distracted–and, therefore, softened–by the emotions and pain of those who tried to do them or their loved ones harm.

So, the next time your brother, father or male friend or partner doesn’t seem to be aware of how you’re feeling–no matter how much you’re trying to tell him via your facial expressions–or he tells you to just suck it up when you’re sick or injured, try not to blame him for his insensitivity. It’s just his testosterone curbing his ability to detect your emotions and empathize.

And the next time you meet someone new, consider how your own hormones are curbing your ability to detect threats, then scrutinize him or her a bit more carefully before giving the person your trust.

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