Are Women More Altruistic Than Men? How the Answer May Help Women Considering Treatment for Substance Abuse and Dual Diagnoses

Are women more altruistic than men? The Dalai Lama thinks so. In 2013, he told reporters gathered at a news conference in Australia that women were “biologically” geared for “more sensitivity about others’ well-being.” And if altruism equates with giving up one’s place in line, the Dalai Lama may be right: women are apparently twice as likely as men to do this good deed. But does this greater propensity toward selflessness show up in other ways, suggesting that women really are more inclined than men to do good deeds for others? Yes, with some helpful implications for women considering treatment for an addiction or dual diagnosis.

Greater Altruism in Women — and How Science Supports It

Proponents of the Dalai Lama’s view need not look far to find other evidence to support that women are intrinsically more altruistic than men:

  • Women express higher levels of compassion than men do, according to scientific surveys.
  • Women experience stronger effects of the hormone oxytocin due to oxytocin’s synergy with the female hormone estrogen. Studies have linked oxytocin to nurturing, social bonding, acts of generosity and what some have called “the helper’s high” (those rewarding feelings of pleasure produced by doing a good deed).
  • Women continue to volunteer at higher rates than men, across all age groups, educational levels, and other major demographic characteristics, according to the latest report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Studies have linked both altruism and volunteering to better health and greater longevity — and women do tend to outlive men by five to six years, according to the World Health Organization.

For Women Considering Treatment for Addiction and/or a Dual Diagnosis — The Implications of Greater Altruism in Women

If such findings reliably point to greater altruism in women than in men, they also contain implications for women considering treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction and/or dual diagnosis:

  1. Altruism may account for why women are less likely to seek substance abuse treatment than men. Regardless of what may happen on airplanes, in the world of healthcare, women will often wait to put on their own oxygen mask until they have assisted others. Research has found, for example, that women are less likely than men to go to the doctor for a medical issue or to get regular checkups due to perceived caregiving duties. The same may be true when the medical issue is a drug or alcohol addiction and/or co-occurring disorder like anxiety or depression.
  1. Altruism and opportunities to practice it are potentially even more critical to women’s long-term recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction and/or a dual diagnosis. Decades of research have shown how displays of altruism boost overall happiness and mental health. Most recently, Canadian researchers discovered that acts of kindness reduce social anxiety in those who suffer from social phobia. The condition afflicts more women than men in this country, and can often trigger substance abuse and present obstacles in treatment for drug or alcohol addiction.

The Gender Neutrality of Compassion — and the Science in Favor of It

Ultimately, the scientific jury is still out about whether the Dalai Lama is right. A study at Stanford University found that compassion, a close relative of altruism, is a trait that transcends gender. The “compassionate instinct” is common to both women and men and appears to have furthered human beings’ evolutionary survival, according to the director of the Greater Good Science Center, Dr. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., in a June 2013 article. Another study, this one at the University of New Mexico and featured in the same article, used brain imaging to explore how men and women responded to sad images meant to elicit compassion. Different images of the brain lit up in men than in women, but the overall levels of compassion were comparable across genders. Such findings notwithstanding, science may yet shed more light on how altruism functions paradoxically both as a help and a hindrance to treating women with a drug or alcohol addiction and/or dual diagnosis. The paradox goes like this: if women are more inclined than men to give up their place in line, they are also more likely to relinquish opportunities for treatment and recovery; but in the longer haul of treatment and recovery, such expressions of altruism may also be the very thing that give women a better chance at lasting sobriety and mental health. Sources:

  • “All the Reasons Women Don’t Go to the Doctor, Other Than Money,” The Atlantic
  • “Doing good deeds helps socially anxious people relax,” Science Daily
  • “Are Women More Compassionate Than Men?,” Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley
  • “The Science of Good Deeds,” Web MD

By Kristina Robb-Dover, M.Div. Follow Kristina on Twitter at @saintplussinner

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