Our Ability to Feel Empathy is Partly Shaped By Our Genes

How empathetic we are is partly due to genetics, according to new study. (Photo: Pixabay)

Empathy plays a key role in human relationships and has two parts: Cognitive empathy—the ability to recognise another person’s thoughts and feelings, and affective empathy—the ability to respond with an appropriate emotion to someone else’s thoughts and feelings.

A new study published yesterday, suggests that how empathic we are is not just a result of our upbringing and experience, but also partly a result of our genes.

The study, published in Translational Psychiatry, was conducted by scientists from the University of Cambridge, working with genetics company 23andMe and a team of international scientists, and is the largest genetic study of empathy to date.


Previous Research

Fifteen years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed the Empathy Quotient (EQ), a brief self-report measure of empathy. The EQ measures both parts of empathy.

Previous research showed that some of us are more empathetic than others, and that on average, women are slightly more empathetic than men. It also showed that, on average, autistic people score lower on the EQ, and that this was because they struggle with cognitive empathy, even though their affective empathy may be intact.


Three Important Results

This new study that used information from more than 46,000 23andMe customers, who all completed the EQ online and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis, found three important results: 

First, it found that how empathetic we are is partly due to genetics. Indeed, a tenth of this variation is due to genetic factors. This confirms previous research examining empathy in identical versus non-identical twins. 

Second, the new study confirmed that women are on average more empathetic than men. However, this difference is not due to our DNA as there were no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women. 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 socialisation, both of which also differ between the sexes. 




Finally, the new study found that genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with higher risk for autism. 

“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%,” Varun Warrier, lead author and PhD student at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge, said. 

“These are the latest findings from a series of studies that 23andMe have collaborated on with researchers at Cambridge. Together these are providing exciting new insights into the genetics influences underlying human behaviour,” Dr. David Hinds, Principal Scientist at 23andMe, added. 

“Finding 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,” Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge, said. 


Materials provided by University of Cambridge. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.