Genes play a major role in empathy, study

How empathic we are is not just a result of our upbringing and experience but also partly a result of our genes.

gender, empathy
Credit: Matheus Ferrero

Empathy has two sections: the capacity to perceive someone else’s contemplations and sentiments, and the capacity to react with a suitable feeling to another person’s considerations and emotions. The initial segment is called ‘intellectual empathy’ and the second part ‘affective empathy’.

According to a new study by the Cambridge scientists, how empathetic we are is partly due to genetics. The study also confirms that women are on average more empathetic than men.

Scientists collaborated with the genetics company 23andMe and a team of international scientists. This is the largest genetic study of empathy using information from more than 46,000 23andMe customers where all of them completed the EQ online and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis.

Scientists conducted the study in three iterations. During 1st iteration, scientists found that how empathetic we are is partly due to genetics. Indeed, a tenth of this variation is due to genetic factors.

During 2nd iteration, study affirmed that ladies are overall more compassionate than men. In any case, this distinction isn’t because of our DNA as there were no distinctions in the qualities that add to compassion in men and ladies. Means, the gender difference in empathy is the result of other non-genetic biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialization, both of which also differ between the genders.

Varun Warrier said: “This is an important step towards understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy. But keep in mind that only a tenth of individual differences in empathy in the population is due to genetics. It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90%.”

Professor Thomas Bourgeron added: “This new study demonstrates a role for genes in empathy, but we have not yet identified the specific genes that are involved. Our next step is to gather larger samples to replicate these findings, and to pinpoint the precise biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy.”

Dr. David Hinds said: “These are the latest findings from a series of studies that 23andMe have collaborated on with researchers at Cambridge. Together these are providing exciting new insights into the genetics influences underlying human behavior.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen added: “Finding that even a fraction of why we differ in empathy is due to genetic factors helps us understand people such as those with autism who struggle to imagine another person’s thoughts and feelings. This can give rise to disability no less challenging than other kinds of disability, such as dyslexia or visual impairment. We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, workarounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion.”

The study ‘Genome-wide analyses of self-reported empathy: correlations with autism, schizophrenia, and anorexia nervosa‘ is published online in the journal Nature.

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