Not Just Character: Genetics Play a Role in Empathy

There was also no genetic difference found between men and women even though women are more empathetic

There was also no genetic difference found between men and women even though women are more empathetic Credit Andrew Brookes

The new study found three important results.

"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 in a press release.

Researchers have found that around a tenth of our ability to recognise and respond appropriately to another person's thoughts and feelings comes down to our DNA.

It was found that the degree of empathy of a person is partly due to genetic factors, about 10%.

Empathy, emotional matching to the mental state of another person, is not just a matter of raising and experiencing, but also of genes. 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. "Indeed, at least a tenth of this variation is associated with genetic factors", reported the Pasteur Institute in a statement regarding the study.

Fifteen years ago, the team at the University of Cambridge discovered that empathy is a combination of two separate emotions: cognitive and affective empathy. Women, on average, are slightly more empathetic than men.

The sample pool included more than 46,000 people, all customers of 23andMe. "It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90 per cent", said.

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Their responses were used to find out which genetic variations were linked to empathy.

"This is an important step toward understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy", said Varun Warrier, a Cambridge doctoral student, and leader of the team. As well, the findings reveal that in cases where genes are associated with lower empathy levels, there's an associated increase in the risk of autism.

These signs of empathy had previously been put down to biological differences - but the latest study suggests otherwise.

During the work, researchers found that women often have higher levels of empathy than men, but genes don't explain the difference.

There are no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women.

'This can give rise to disability no less challenging than other kinds of disability, such as dyslexia or visual impairment. Genetics don't seem to influence that difference, however, leaving the door open for other potential influences like prenatal hormones and social factors.

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