Genes play a role in empathy

Genes play a role in empathy

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

Empathy has two parts: the ability to recognize another person's thoughts and feelings, and the ability to respond with an appropriate emotion to someone else's thoughts and feelings. The first part is called 'cognitive empathy' and the second part 'affective empathy'.

Fifteen years ago, a team of scientists 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.

In a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, researchers report the results of the largest genetic study of empathy using information from more than 46,000 customers. The customers all completed the EQ online and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis.

The new study has 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. Authors identify 11 suggestive loci, though none were significant at P < 2.5 × 10−8 after correcting for multiple testing. The most significant SNP was identified in the non-stratified analysis, and is an intronic SNP in TMEM132C. The EQ had a modest but significant narrow-sense heritability.

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. Authors also identified a significant positive genetic correlation between the EQ and risk for schizophrenia, risk for anorexia nervosa, and extraversion.

The lead author 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%."