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Psychologists at the universities of Bath, Cardiff and London designed a mind-reading test using data from more than 4,000 autistic and non-autistic people in the UK and US.
Results from the simple, four-step questionnaire were scored from four to 16 – with four indicating poor mind-reading abilities and 16 the highest level.
A total of 2,900 people completed the questionnaire, with the average score between 12 and 13.
But women consistently reported better scores than men – on average, men scored 12.1 while women scored 12.6.
The findings, as well as the test, have been published in the journal Psychological Assessment.
Dr Punit Shah, from the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology, said: “Much of how we communicate relies on our understanding of what others are thinking, yet this is a surprisingly complex process that not everyone can do.
“To understand this psychological process, we needed to separate mind-reading from empathy.
“Mind-reading refers to understanding what other people are thinking, whereas empathy is all about understanding what others are feeling.
“The difference might seem subtle but is critically important and involves very different brain networks.
“By focusing carefully on measuring mind-reading, without confusing it with empathy, we are confident that we have just measured mind-reading.
“When doing this, we consistently find that females reported greater mind-reading abilities than their male counterparts.”
Mind-reading, sometimes referred to in psychology as mentalising, is the ability to pick-up on subtle behavioural cues that may indicate someone is thinking something they are not saying.
The researchers say people all have different mind-reading abilities, with some inherently better than others.
This can cause challenges, in particular for people with autism where it can lead to social struggles in building or maintaining relationships.
Rachel Clutterbuck, also of the University of Bath, said: “This new test, which takes under a minute to complete, has important utility in clinical settings.
“It is not always obvious if someone is experiencing difficulties understanding and responding to others – and many people have learnt techniques which can reduce the appearance of social difficulties, even though these remain.
“This work has great potential to better understand the lived experience of people with mind-reading difficulties, such as those with autism, whilst producing a precise quantitative score that may be used by clinicians to identify individuals who may benefit from interventions.”
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