Published: Tue, March 13, 2018
Medicine | By Brett Sutton

Genes play a role in empathy, says study

Genes play a role in empathy, says study

Empathy, the ability to understand and pay attention to the feelings of others, is mainly the product of our experience but also some of our genes, according to British and French researchers. The work was done by 23andMe, a genetics company, as well as researchers with the University of Cambridge, the CNRS, Institut Pasteur, and Paris Diderot University. Studies in the past have explored empathy and linked it to both health benefits and harmful effects. First, it found that how empathetic we are is partly due to genetics.

Turns out, our empathy is not just a result of our education and experiences, but is also influenced by genetic variations to some degree.

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

Empathy, the trait of emotionally understanding others by placing yourself in their position, is known to have two parts: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Participants of the new study completed the EQ and also provided samples of their saliva.

Previous research showed that some of us are more empathetic than others, and that on average, women are slightly more empathetic than men.

"Individually each gene plays a small role and it is hard to identify them", said Thomas Bourgeron, one of the study's authors. 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. Indeed, a tenth of this variation is due to genetic factors.

Baron-Cohen also stressed that society should offer support to people with disabilities by using "novel teaching methods, workarounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion".

They have also confirmed what many may have already suspected - that women tend to be more empathetic than men. Though the analysis "revealed no significant difference between the heritability in the males-only and the females-only datasets", causes of the sex difference may include non-genetic biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialization.

"This new study demonstrates a role for genes in empathy, but we have not yet identified the specific genes that are involved", said Bourgeron, in a school statement. 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.

Highlighting genetic factors will help scientists understand persons like the autistic ones, who have problems picturing the emotions and the feelings of the ones around them.

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