Understanding the Brain

Empathizing–systemizing theory

From Cognopedia
Jump to: navigation, search

The empathizing–systemizing (E-S) theory seeks to classify people on the basis of their skills in two factors of empathizing and systemizing. It measures skills using an Empathy Quotient (EQ) and Systemizing Quotient (SQ), and attempts to explain the social and communication symptoms in autism spectrum disorders as deficits and delays in empathy combined with intact or superior systemizing.[1]


E-S theory was developed by British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. He proposed the mind-blindness theory in 1985, which proposed that children with autism are delayed in their development of a theory of mind, that is, the ability to reason about the thoughts and feeling of themselves or others. A shortcoming of this theory was that it was unable to explain one of autism's core symptoms, namely restrictive and repetitive interests and behaviors. To overcome this and other obstacles, Baron-Cohen proposed E-S theory as a revision of the older theory-of-mind theory.[1] The theory hypothesizes that systemizing was an evolutionary advantage for male hunter-gatherers, and empathizing was advantageous for female caregivers.[2]


Females score higher on self-report scales of empathy, on samples ranging from school-age children to adults. Empathy scales include measures of perspective taking, orientation towards another person, empathic concern, and personal distress. However, such measures are subjective and empathy may be more related to gender role rather than sex.[3]

More males than females are diagnosed with autism and Asperger syndrome. Cohen believes that autistic individuals and people with Asperger syndrome (AS) are examples of people with an "extreme male brain." People with autism or AS are very strong in systemizing, albeit often in a manner which is hyperfocused, and may even oversimplify more complex systems due to missing certain details. Some people with autism or AS may have impairments in empathy,[4] however, Rogers et al. suggests that one must differentiate between cognitive empathy and affective empathy when regarding people with Asperger syndrome. They suggest that autistic individuals have less ability to ascertain others' feelings, but demonstrate equal empathy when they are aware of others' states of mind. Autistic and AS people actually have a greater response to stress that they witness others experiencing than neurotypical people do.[5]

Extreme male brain

The E-S theory has been extended into the extreme male brain theory of autism, which hypothesizes that autism spectrum disorders are an extreme of the typical male profile. This theory divides people into 5 groups:

  • Type E, whose empathy is significantly better than their systemizing.
  • Type S, whose systemizing is significantly better than their empathy.
  • Type B (for balanced), whose empathy is as good as their systemizing.
  • Extreme Type E, whose empathy is above average but whose systemizing is challenged.
  • Extreme Type S, whose systemizing is above average but whose empathy is challenged.

According to the E-S model, more females than males are Type E, leading this to also be called 'the female brain'. More males than females are Type S, leading this to also be called 'the male brain'; 65% of people with autism spectrum conditions are Extreme Type S.[1]

Fetal testosterone

The fetal testosterone theory hypothesizes that higher levels of testosterone in the developing fetus could produce behaviors relevant to those seen in autism. The Baron-Cohen group has published reports suggesting that high levels of fetal testosterone could result in higher ratios of systemizing to empathizing.[6]


Baron-Cohen developed the E-S model in the context of his research into autism. Baron-Cohen argues that about two-thirds of people with autism or Asperger syndrome have an extreme S-type brain, with intact or strong systemizing alongside below-average empathy.

Evidence for this comes not just from their scores on the EQ and SQ but also from experimental (performance) tests of empathy and systemizing.[7]

Autism and Asperger Syndrome occur more often in males than in females, and the E-S theory explains this in terms of autism being an extreme of the typical male brain.[8]

The AQ test

As an adjunct to the EQ SQ Test, Baron-Cohen et al. also developed a test that measures autistic traits in adults. In one study, the average Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) was between 16 and 17. Although the AQ test is not a diagnostic tool, 80% of people with a diagnosis of autism have AQ scores over 32. Many individuals with 32+ AQ scores, however, indicate no day-to-day functional problems. There is also a child and an adolescent version of the AQ. AQ can be derived from EQ and SQ.


The theory has been criticized on multiple grounds. Research in systemizing and empathizing in early life indicates that boys and girls develop in similar ways, casting considerable doubt on the theory of sex differences in these areas.[9] A cognitive style that more naturally opposes empathizing is Machiavellianism, which emphasizes self-interest and which has been shown to be strongly correlated with competitiveness; evolutionary theory predicts that males will be more competitive than females. In contrast, research has generally shown a weak negative correlation between empathizing and systemizing. Another criticism is that original EQ and SQ, which form most of the research basis behind the notions of empathizing and systemizing, both clearly measure more than one factor, and that sex differences exist on only some of the factors.[10]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Baron-Cohen S (2009). "Autism: the empathizing–systemizing (E-S) theory" (PDF). Ann N Y Acad Sci 1156: 68–80. doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04467.x. PMID 19338503. http://autismresearchcentre.com/docs/papers/2009_BC_nyas.pdf. Retrieved 2009-06-08. 
  2. Baron-Cohen S (2008). "Autism, hypersystemizing, and truth" (PDF). Q J Exp Psychol 61 (1): 64–75. doi:10.1080/17470210701508749. PMID 18038339. http://autismresearchcentre.com/docs/papers/2008_BC_JEP_Autism_hypersystemizing_and_truth.pdf. Retrieved 2009-06-09. 
  3. Rachel Karniol, Rivi Gabay, Yael Ochion, Yael Harari (1998) Is gender or gender-role orientation a better predictor of empathy in adolescence? Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, July, 1998
  4. Baron-Cohen, Simon (2003) 'They just can't help it' The Guardian April 17, 2003
  5. Rogers K, Dziobek I, Hassenstab J, Wolf OT, Convit A. Who cares? Revisiting empathy in Asperger syndrome. J Autism Dev Disord. 2007 Apr;37(4):709-15.
  6. Auyeung B, Baron-Cohen S (2009). "A role for fetal testosterone in human sex differences". In Zimmerman AW. Autism: Current Theories and Evidence. Humana. pp. 185–208. doi:10.1007/978-1-60327-489-0_8. ISBN 978-1-60327-488-3. 
  7. Lawson J, Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S (2004). "Empathising and systemising in adults with and without Asperger Syndrome". J Autism Dev Disord 34 (3): 301–10. doi:10.1023/B:JADD.0000029552.42724.1b. PMID 15264498. 
  8. Baron-Cohen S (2002). "The extreme male brain theory of autism". Trends Cogn Sci 6 (6): 248–254. doi:10.1016/S1364-6613(02)01904-6. PMID 12039606. 
  9. Nash A, Grossi G (2007). "Picking Barbie's brain: inherent sex differences in scientific ability?" (PDF). J Interdiscip Fem Thought 2 (1): 5. http://escholar.salve.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1016&context=jift. 
  10. Andrew J, Cooke M, Muncer SJ (2008). "The relationship between empathy and Machiavellianism: an alternative to empathizing–systemizing theory". Pers Individ Dif 44 (5): 1203–11. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2007.11.014. 

External links