Under the Hood

Genes Affect Your Empathy Levels, Like Experiences Do

Upbringing, education, and other external experiences may not be the only factors to influence empathy in a person. Genes play a key role too, according to scientists from the University of Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, the Centre national de la recherche scientifique  (CNRS) and the genetics company 23andMe.

The findings come from the largest genetics study of empathy with 46,000 participants who were customers of 23andMe.

Empathy, the trait of emotionally understanding others by placing yourself in their position, is known to have two parts: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. While the former is concerned with recognizing another person's perspective and feelings, the latter is the capacity to respond with appropriate emotion. Studies in the past have explored empathy and linked it to both health benefits and harmful effects.

The Empathy Quotient (EQ) was developed fifteen years ago by scientists at the University of Cambridge to measure empathy in adults. Participants of the new study completed the EQ and also provided samples of their saliva. Three major results emerged from the combined analysis of the test and the samples.

The first result of the test suggested that our levels of empathy are partly due to genetics.

"This is an important step towards understanding the role that genetics plays in empathy. But keep in mind that 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%," said Varun Warrier, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge who co-led the study.

The second result confirmed that women are more empathetic than men on average. Though the analysis "revealed no significant difference between the heritability in the males-only and the females-only datasets," causes of the sex difference may include non-genetic biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialization.

Lastly, the study revealed that genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with higher risk for autism. Warrier explained that autism is a spectrum and no two people are alike, carrying different sets of strengths and weaknesses.

"But that's only one part of the challenge. Understanding the biology has its limits, and I hope that, in parallel, there will be better social policies to support autistic people," he said.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge, who also co-led the study, said, "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." 

Baron-Cohen also stressed that society should offer support to people with disabilities by using "novel teaching methods, workarounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion."