Cognitive Processing

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 95–106 | Cite as

How predictive are sex and empathizing–systemizing cognitive style for entry into the academic areas of social or physical sciences?

  • Y. Groen
  • A. B. M. Fuermaier
  • L. I. Tucha
  • J. Koerts
  • O. Tucha
Research Report


Based on the Empathizing–Systemizing (E–S) theory, it was hypothesized that the underrepresentation of female students in the physical sciences and the underrepresentation of males in the social sciences relates to differences in E–S cognitive style between the sexes. This hypothesis was tested in 115 physical science students and 155 social science students from a university in the Netherlands. The students completed visuospatial tests and the systemizing quotient-revised (SQ-R) as measures for systemizing, and a Cartoon Prediction test and the empathy quotient (EQ) as measures for empathizing. Independent of sex, the physical science students scored significantly lower than social science students on EQ (with large effect size) and ‘brain type’ that represents the standardized difference score between EQ and SQ-R (with large effect size). Physical science students, furthermore, scored significantly higher on the Cartoon Prediction task and one of the visuospatial tasks; however, these effects were only small of size. Unlike the scores on the SQ-R and the performance tests, the ‘brain type’ score of the EQ and SQ-R questionnaires was a good predictor of entry into social or physical sciences. Interestingly, the typical sex differences in more empathizing and less systemizing in females compared to males were only small for EQ and ‘brain type’, and absent for the SQ-R and the performance tests. This study only partially confirms the E–S theory, because typical sex differences were only minor in this selective sample and only the self-report measures predicted academic area in the absence of a role for sex.


Empathy quotient (EQ) Systemizing quotient (SQ) Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) Gender differences Things–people dimension Cognitive style 



We thank our test assistants and the participants for their valuable contribution to the study. This research did not receive any specific grant from funding agencies in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit sectors.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


  1. Baron-Cohen S (1999) Can studies of autism teach us about consciousness of the physical and the mental? Philos Explor 3:175–188CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baron-Cohen S (2002) The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends Cogn Sci 6(6):248–254. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Baron-Cohen S (2009) Autism: the empathizing–systemizing (E–S) theory. Year Cogn Neurosci 1156:68–80. Google Scholar
  4. Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S (2004) The empathy quotient: an investigation of adults with asperger syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. J Autism Dev Disord 34(2):163–175CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Baron-Cohen S, Richler J, Bisarya D, Gurunathan N, Wheelwright S (2003) The systemizing quotient: an investigation of adults with asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Philos Trans R Soc Lond Ser B Biol Sci 358(1430):361–374. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Baron-Cohen S, Knickmeyer R, Belmonte M (2005) Sex differences in the brain: implications for explaining autism. Science 310(5749):819–823. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Billington J, Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S (2007) Cognitive style predicts entry into physical sciences and humanities: questionnaire and performance tests of empathy and systemizing. Learn Individ Differ 17(3):260–268. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chen PD, Simpson PA (2015) Does personality matter? Applying holland’s typology to analyze students’ self-selection into science, technology engineering, and mathematics majors. J High Educ 86(5):725–750. Google Scholar
  9. Christov-Moore L, Simpson EA, Coude G, Grigaityte K, Iacoboni M, Ferrari PF (2014) Empathy: gender effects in brain and behavior. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 46:604–627. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  10. Contreras MJ, Colom R, Shih P, Alava M, Santacreu J (2001) Dynamic spatial performance: sex and educational differences. Personal Individ Differ 30(1):117–126. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Contreras MJ, Martinez-Molina A, Santacreu J (2012) Do the sex differences play such an important role in explaining performance in spatial tasks? Personal Individ Differ 52(6):659–663. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Cook CM, Saucier DM (2010) Mental rotation, targeting ability and Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing–Systemizing theory of sex differences. Personal Individ Differ 49(7):712–716. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Correa Varella MA, Benedetti Piccoli Ferreira JH, Pereira KJ, Raad Bussab VS, Valentova JV (2016) Empathizing, systemizing, and career choice in Brazil: sex differences and individual variation among areas of study. Personal Individ Differ 97:157–164. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Diekman AB, Brown ER, Johnston AM, Clark EK (2010) Seeking congruity between goals and roles: a new look at why women opt out of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. Psychol Sci 21(8):1051–1057. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Ellis L, Ratnasingam M, Wheeler M (2012) Gender, sexual orientation, and occupational interests: evidence of their interrelatedness. Personal Individ Differ 53:64–69. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Eslinger PJ, Moore P, Troiani V, Antani S, Cross K, Kwok S, Grossman M (2007) Oops! resolving social dilemmas in frontotemporal dementia. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry 78(5):457–460. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  17. Focquaert F, Steven MS, Wolford GL, Colden A, Gazzaniga MS (2007) Empathizing and systemizing cognitive traits in the sciences and humanities. Personal Individ Differ 43(3):619–625. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Fuermaier ABM, Tucha L, Koerts J, Hauser J, Kaunzinger I, Aschenbrenner S, Weissbrod M, Tucha O (2015) Cognitive impairment in adult ADHD-perspective matters! Neuropsychology 29(1):45–58. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Geiser C, Lehmann W, Corth M, Eid M (2008a) Quantitative and qualitative change in children’s mental rotation performance. Learn Individ Differ 18:419–429. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Geiser C, Lehmann W, Eid M (2008b) A note on sex differences in mental rotation in different age groups. Intelligence 36:556–563. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Groen Y, Fuermaier ABM, Den Heijer AE, Tucha O, Althaus M (2015) The empathy and systemizing quotient: the psychometric properties of the Dutch version and a review of the cross-cultural stability. J Autism Dev Disord 45:2848–2864. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  22. Halpern DF (2011) Sex differences in cognitive abilities, 4th edn. Psychology Press, New York and HoveGoogle Scholar
  23. Horn W (1983) Leistungsprüfsystem L-P-S, 2nd edn. Hogrefe Verlag, GöttingenGoogle Scholar
  24. Kimura D (2002) Men and women display patterns of behavioral and cognitive differences that reflect varying hormonal influences on brain development. Sci Am 12:32–37Google Scholar
  25. Kret ME, De Gelder B (2012) A review on sex differences in processing emotional signals. Neuropsychologia 50(7):1211–1221. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Ling J, Burton TC, Salt JL, Muncer SJ (2009) Psychometric analysis of the systemizing quotient (SQ) scale. Br J Psychol 100:539–552. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. Lippa RA (2006) The gender reality hypothesis. Am Psychol 61(6):639–640. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Malgwi CA, Howe MA, Burnaby PA (2005) Influences on students’ choice of college major. J Educ Bus 80(5):275–282. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Manson C, Winterbottom M (2012) Examining the association between empathising, systemising, degree subject and gender. Educ Stud 38(1):73–88. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport (2015) Panorama de la educación; Indicadores de la OCDE. Accessed 25 Sept 2017
  31. Montagne B, Kessels RPC, Frigerio E et al (2005) Sex differences in the perception of affective facial expressions: do men really lack emotional sensitivity? Cogn Process 6:136. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Montreuil T, Bodnar M, Bertrand M, Malla AK, Joober R, Lepage M (2010) Social cognitive markers of short-term clinical outcome in first-episode psychosis. Clin Schizophr Relat Psychos 4(2):105–114. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. National Science Foundation (2013) Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. Accessed 25 Sept 2017
  34. Nazareth A, Herrera A, Pruden SM (2013) Explaining sex differences in mental rotation: role of spatial activity experience. Cogn Process 14:201. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. O’Sullivan M, Guilford JP (1976) In: Sheridan Psychological Services (ed) Four factor tests of social intelligence (behavioural cognition). Manual of instructions and interpretations. Consulting Psycholgists Press, Palo AltoGoogle Scholar
  36. Platform Beta techniek (2014) Facts and figures 2014. Accessed 17 June 2015
  37. Prediger DJ (1982) Dimensions underlying Holland’s hexagon: missing link between interests and occupations? J Vocat Behav 21:259–287. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Rodán A, Contreras MJ, Elosua MR, Gimeno P (2016) Experimental but not sex differences of a mental rotation training program on adolescents. Front Psychol 7:1050. CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  39. Sasson NJ, Pinkham AE, Richard J, Hughett P, Gur RE, Gur RC (2010) Controlling for response biases clarifies sex and age differences in facial affect recognition. J Nonverbal Behav 34:207–221. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Schmader T (2010) Stereotype threat deconstructed. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 19(1):14–18. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Spelke, ES (2005) Sex Differences in Intrinsic Aptitude for Mathematics and Science? A critical review. Am Psycholog 60(9):950–958. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Su R, Rounds J (2015) All STEM fields are not created equal: people and things interests explain gender disparities across STEM fields. Front Psychol 6:1–20. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Su R, Rounds J, Armstrong PI (2009) Men and things, women and people: a meta-analysis of sex differences in interests. Psychol Bull 135:859–884. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  44. Vellante M, Baron-Cohen S, Melis M, Marrone M, Petretto DR, Masala C, Preti A (2013) The “reading the mind in the eyes” test: systematic review of psychometric properties and a validation study in Italy. Cogn Neuropsychiatry 18(4):326–354. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Voyer D, Voyer S, Bryden M (1995) Magnitude of sex-differences in spatial abilities—a meta analysis and consideration of critical variables. Psychol Bull 117(2):250–270. CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  46. Wheelwright S, Baron Cohen S, Goldenfeld N, Delaney J, Fine D, Smith R (2006) Predicting autism spectrum quotient (AQ) from the systemizing quotient-revised (SQ-R) and empathy quotient (EQ). Brain Res 1:47–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Woodcock A, GrazianoW G, Branch SE, Habashi MM, Ngambeki I, Evangelou D (2013) Person and thing orientations: psychological correlates and predictive utility. Soc Psychol Personal Sci 4:116–123. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Marta Olivetti Belardinelli and Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Clinical and Developmental NeuropsychologyUniversity of GroningenGroningenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations