Human Empathy Partly Influenced by Genetic Factors Indicate New Data
A novel genome-wide association study (GWAS) by an international team of scientists demonstrates how genetics plays a “small but important” role in our empathetic ability. It went on to break stereotypes- finding no correlation between empathy and the participant’s sex.
Empathy is the ability to recognize and respond to the emotional states of other individuals. It plays an important role in social interaction by facilitating both making sense of other people’s behaviour and in responding appropriately to their behaviour. For these reasons, it is considered a key component of prosocial behaviour, social cooperation, and social cognition.
Differences in various fractions of empathy have been observed in several psychiatric conditions including autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder.
The most standard way of measuring a person’s empathy is the so-called Empathy Quotient(EQ) — an emotional analog of IQ if you will. Empathy is typically split into two parts: firstly, the ability to recognize and understand another person’s situation (cognitive empathy), and secondly, the ability to respond to it appropriately (affective empathy). The EQ measures the sum of these parts.
These differences vary between psychiatric conditions: for example, individuals with schizophrenia are more likely to report higher personal distress and emotional contagion, whereas individuals with autism are likely to show difficulties with cognitive empathy but not affective empathy.
These may reflect causal risk mechanisms where alterations in empathy contribute to higher risk for developing a psychiatric condition. Equally, differences in empathy may also be due to the presence of a psychiatric condition, which may not allow individuals to understand and respond to another person’s mental state effectively.
Therefore, researchers from the University of Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University in Paris, and genetics company 23andMe evaluated empathy based on participants’ Empathy Quotient (EQ) scores.
“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,” Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge in England said. “This empathy difficulty can give rise to a disability that is no less challenging than other kinds of disability. We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion.”
In the study, the team ran a statistical analysis known as genome-wide association studies to show that variations in genetics are linked with changes in empathy. It involved more than 46,000 23andMe customers. The customers all completed the EQ online and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis.
The empathy quotient is about 60 questions long, and if you score a 55 or more, it means you’re more empathetic than the average human. The team then gave this test to the 23andMe company, who put the questionnaire on the website. Based on the scores received and the corresponding genetic information of the individuals, variability was calculated to see how much of the difference in the EQ score could be explained by genetic variance.
And it was 10 percent.
That might not seem like a lot, but on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 meaning that everything is environmentally affected and 100 meaning everything is genetically influenced, it’s a highly significant number.
Lead author 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 are due to genetics. It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90%.”
Like the study 15 years ago, researchers found women are, on average, more empathetic than men. But they found this variation is not a result of DNA because no differences were observed in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women. They said other factors may include socialization or prenatal hormone influences.
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 pin-point the precise biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy.”
Ultimately, though genes have a considerable effect, they do not strictly dictate empathy; environmental and cultural factors also have considerable influence. “A large chunk seems to come from non-genetic factors,” says Warrier. Still, given that upbringing is a significant environmental factor, those who wish to blame (or credit) their parents for their empathy still have an excuse to do so.
Researchers hope that these new findings will help develop better approaches for dealing with autism. However, there doesn’t seem to be a silver bullet. There’s just too much variation from person to person to develop a one-size-fits-all approach to inclusion and therapy.
“First, we have identified only a fraction of the genes associated with autism. Second, no two autistic people are alike. Third, within the spectrum autistic people have different strengths and difficulties. Finally, those with a clinical diagnosis blend seamlessly into those in the population who don’t have a diagnosis but simply have a lot of autistic traits. We all have some autistic traits – this spectrum runs right through the population on a bell curve” Simon Baron-Cohen comments.