Researchers have discovered that empathy is not only developed through life experiences and education, but it is also determined in part by our genes. They also found that on average, women are more empathetic than men, and say the study could help doctors gain a better understanding of autism.
Empathy is crucial for human relationships and consists of two main components: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. The first is the ability to recognise someone else’s thoughts and feelings, while the second is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion.
Scientists from the University of Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the genetics company 23andMe worked together to conduct the study, which was published on Monday in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
The researchers analysed saliva samples from more than 46,000 people, making it the largest genetics study of empathy to date. Participants also filled out a questionnaire to measure their “empathy quotient,” which the scientists refer to as EQ.
The analysis found that 10% or more of variation in empathy levels was linked to genetic factors.
“This is an important step towards understanding the role that genetics plays in empathy,” said Varun Warrier, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge who was involved in the research. “But since only a tenth of the variation in the degree of empathy between individuals is down to genetics, it is equally important to understand the non-genetic factors.”
The findings also showed that women tend to be more empathetic than men. On average, women scored 50 out of 80 on the EQ questionnaire, while men scored 41. Scientists cautioned in their paper, however, that self-reported measures like the EQ can sometimes lead to skewed results.
Researchers found no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women, and therefore said the variation was not genetically determined. They concluded that the observed differences were caused by other factors, including socialisation or prenatal hormones.
Scientists also found that genes linked to lower empathy are associated with a higher risk for autism. The results align with findings of other studies, which showed individuals with autism reported lower empathy.
“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,” said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge.
Researchers said that they were unable to find any specific genes that were responsible for the genetic differences observed in people who were more or less empathetic, and that they hope to conduct additional research on the topic.
“The next step is to study an even larger number of people, to replicate these findings and to pinpoint the biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy,” said Thomas Bourgeron, head of the Institut Pasteur’s human genetics and cognitive functions unit.
Other scientists welcomed the study’s findings. Dr Edward Barker, director of the Developmental Psychopathology Lab at King’s College London, told the BBC the study is the “first step” in investigating the connection between empathy and genetics and called some of the findings “very interesting.”
“But as the authors say, it’s the first analysis of its kind and could benefit from a larger study,” Barker added.