friendship adolescent empathy
Friendship is crucial for adolescents to ensure their mental health and well-being Istock

Adolescent boys who show high levels of empathy attract more girl friendships than their peers, research has shown. The study, published in the Journal of personality, is the first to look at the extent to which teenagers select their friends based on their levels of empathy.

The idea was to assess the role of empathy in selecting and maintaining friendships, and to better understand how friendships between boys and girls develop at that age. These relationships are crucial to adolescent well-being and mental health.

The results of the research suggest there are important differences between genders when it comes to choosing friends from the opposite sex.

While girls are more likely to be attracted to empathetic boys and to develop a friendship with them, empathy in girls does not appear to increase their number of male friends.

1.8 times more girlfriends

The researchers, from the Australian Catholic University, conducted a survey of 1,970 students in Queensland and New South Wales, who were on average 15.7-years-old. The teens were asked to nominate their five closest male friends and five closest female friends.

To assess which students displayed more signs of empathy, they had all of them answer questions such as "when someone is feeling down, I can usually understand how they feel", and to complete a scale called the 'student Social Support Scale' - in which participants assessed the level of advice and support they received from their friends at difficult times.

The results show that girls are more likely to nominate empathetic boys in their list of five closest male friends. The most empathetic boys had 1.8 times more girl friendships than boys who scored the least for empathy.

In contrast, empathetic girls did not rate quite so highly with the opposite sex. In fact, the study found these girls "did not attract a greater number of opposite-sex friends" at all.

Social support is not affected

How adolescents perceived their friends' support also varied according to their sex. Girls did not appear to be affected if they received less friendship nominations from the boys. Boys however felt more social support when they received a lot of nominations from both girls and boys.

There were also differences between empathetic and non-empathetic teens. Showing a lot of empathy was indeed associated to feeling greater levels of support from friends.

All of these findings could provide clues about how adolescents can make friends and what skills are valued by this age-group.

"Friends are essential to positive adolescent development. It's well established that in addition to providing companionship, close friendships promote the development of interpersonal skills, learning, and growth", concludes lead author Joseph Ciarrochi.

"This research suggests it is critical to identify and teach young people the skills they need to develop supportive friendships. Our study provides a contextual understanding of the role of empathy in selecting and maintaining friendships."