Is Empathy in Our Genes?


Empathy is learned in many ways, but now, it could also be considered to be genetic. A recent study from researchers at the University of Cambridge was the first of its kind to conduct a genetic analysis on whether empathy can be inherited.

The researchers were quick to acknowledge that the study’s findings themselves were not as significant in the context of other environmental factors, but they said further research about whether empathy can be passed down would be useful. Varun Warrier, of the university’s department of psychiatry, said that at least ten percent of how empathy differences develop can be backed by genetics.

“This is an important step towards understanding the role that genetics plays in empathy,” he said to BBC News. “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 study begins with an explanation of two kinds of empathy that provide context for the measurements taken. The researchers explained that the “two major fractions of empathy include affective empathy (the drive to respond to another’s mental state with an appropriate emotion) and cognitive empathy (the ability to recognize another’s mental state).”

Participants for the study were taken from the customer base of 23andMe, Inc. and included 24,543 females and 22,318 males. Only participants who had 97 percent of European ancestry were chosen for the analysis, and all participants completed the Empathy Quotient (EQ), a self-reporting questionnaire widely used to measure empathy.

The EQ is made of 60 questions – 20 filter questions and 40 legitimate questions, with a maximum potential score of 80 and a minimum of zero. The average score for all participants was 46.4, with the average age of participants at 48.9 years old.

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Females scored significantly higher than males, and the researchers found that there was a significant age effect, where scores increased with age. To understand how the EQ related to psychiatric conditions, psychological traits and education, the researchers conducted genetic correlation methods for autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa, bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia.

Three genetic correlations were significant following adjustments – for psychiatric conditions, associations were found for autism, schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa. The researchers also studied links to psychological traits including extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, neuroticism and subjective well-being.

Only one significant association was found for psychological traits and that was for extraversion. The researchers concluded the study by stating that it provides the “first narrow-sense heritability for empathy.”

Gil McVean, a professor of statistical genetics at the University of Oxford, said the study does show that genes can play a role in empathy. However, when looked at in combination with environmental factors, the impact isn’t as significant.

“We know that basically anything you can measure in humans has a genetic component, and this establishes that empathy does have some heritable component,” McVean said.

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