Empathy Is Encoded in Our DNA

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Mar 13, 2018

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A recent study now suggests empathy skills are not only abilities developed by our upbringing and experiences, but also a personality trait rooted in our genes.

While empathy might seem difficult to measure, 15 years ago, researchers at the University of Cambridge developed the Empathy Quotient, a brief self-report that measures two kinds of empathy: Cognitive empathy, which is the ability to recognise another person’s thoughts and feelings; and affective empathy, or, the ability to respond with appropriate emotion to someone else’s thoughts and feelings.

This new study, the largest genetic study of empathy, was also conducted by a different team from University of Cambridge, along with international scientists and the genetics company 23andMe. The team asked 46,000 participants on 23andMe to complete the Empathetic Quotient online and then provide a saliva sample for genetic analysis.

After cross-analysing, the team concluded that how empathetic a person is, is at least partly a result of our genetic code.

“This is an important step towards understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy,” says Varun Warrier, one of the lead researchers. “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%.”

The team also found that women tend to be more empathetic than men. This reinforces earlier research, but reveals this difference is not genetic; there were no differences in the genes that contribute to levels of empathy in men and women. Instead, researchers suggest that empathy variations in men and women might be due to physiological differences, like hormone levels, as well as non-biological factors such as socialisation. Indeed, another recent study published in Developmental Science in January, suggests touch, not only DNA, plays an important role in developing empathy in children.

Finally, the research also showed that genetic variants associated with lower empathy were also associated with higher risk for autism; an important but unsurprising conclusion, as on average, people with autism struggle with cognitive empathy, even though their affective empathy may be fully developed.

It’s the latest in a steady stream of research revealing the genetic roots of autism spectrum disorder.

“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,” says Simon Baron-Cohen, senior author of the study.

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Written By Angelina Shah

Angelina Shah is a staff writer with The Swaddle. In her previous life she was a copywriter in advertising. She has a penchant for reading, singing, travelling and being obsessed with superheroes.

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