Being able to identify and respond to other people’s emotions helps us maintain healthy relationships, and encourages helping behavior. Previous research has shown that the way we are socialized can have a significant impact on our ability to empathize, but as Kristen V. Brown of Gizmodo reports, a new study suggests that empathy is also shaped by our genes.
Hoping to learn more about the genetic factors driving human empathy, an international team of researchers analyzed genetic data from 46,861 customers of 23andMe, a DNA testing and analysis company. The study participants were also asked to complete the Empathy Quotient (EQ), a short survey developed 15 years ago by scientists at the University of Cambridge. The EQ measures two facets of empathy: “cognitive empathy,” or the ability to recognize others’ thoughts and feelings, and “affective empathy,” or the ability to respond with appropriate emotion to others’ thoughts and feelings.
Researchers relied on a statistical analysis known as genome-wide association studies, which involves scanning markers across complete DNA sets belonging to a large number of people. According to Olivia Goldhill of Quartz, the team looked at 10 million genetic variants and concluded that genetic factors can explain around 10 percent of differences in our ability to empathize.
The study, published recently in the journal Translational Psychiatry, confirms previous research that examined empathy in twins. When confronted with an adult pretending to be in distress, identical twins tended to respond more like one another than fraternal twins, suggesting genetics influence levels of empathy.
The new study also found that women are on average more empathetic than men—but that this difference is not linked to genetic factors. “There were no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women,” according to a press release from the University of Cambridge, which was involved in the research. “This implies that the sex 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 sexes.”
Researchers were also intrigued to discover that genetic variants associated with lower empathy levels are also associated with a higher risk for autism. Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder, but people with autism often have difficulties with social interactions. “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,” Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, the director of Cambridge’s Autism Research Center and one of the study’s authors, said in the statement.
Of course, the fact that genes play some role in the way we empathize does not mean that empathy lies completely beyond our control. As Varun Warrier, a PhD student at the Autism Research Center and one of the lead authors of the study, pointed out in the press release, “only a tenth of individual differences in empathy in the population are due to genetics. It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90 percent.”
And while researchers were able to establish a genetic link to empathy, the study was not large enough to identify the exact genes that might be at work. Moving forward, the team hopes to gather larger samples and gain a more precise sense of how our DNA influences the way we understand and respond to the people around us.