Genes have a role in empathy, study says

By Alex Therrien
Health reporter, BBC News

A woman comforting a manImage source, Getty Images

It helps us to make close connections with people, and influences how we behave in a range of situations, from the workplace to a party.

Now scientists say empathy is not just something we develop through our upbringing and life experiences - it is also partly inherited.

A study of 46,000 people found evidence for the first time that genes have a role in how empathetic we are.

And it also found that women are generally more empathetic than men.

'Important step'

Empathy has an important role in our relationships.

It helps us recognise other people's emotions and it guides us to respond appropriately, such as by knowing when someone is upset and wants to be comforted.

It is largely considered to be something we develop through childhood and our life experiences.

But in this new paper, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, scientists looked to see if how empathetic we are can be traced to our genes.

Participants in the study had their "empathy quotient" (EQ) measured with a questionnaire, and gave saliva samples for DNA testing.

Scientists then looked for differences in their genes that could explain why some of us are more empathetic than others.

They found that at least 10% of the differences in how empathetic people are is down to genetics.

Varun Warrier, from the University of Cambridge who led the study, said: "This is an important step towards understanding the role that genetics plays in empathy.

"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."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
It is the first time a study has looked to see if empathy can be traced to our genes

The research also found differences in empathy between the sexes.

Out of a maximum of 80 from the EQ questionnaire, women on average scored 50, as opposed to 41 for men.

But researchers said they were unable to find any genetic differences behind this.

The scientists also found genetic differences that are associated with lower empathy were also linked to a higher risk of autism.

However, they acknowledged there were limitations to the research.

The empathy quotient is a self-reported survey, which can skew results.

And although they found genetic differences between people who were more and less empathetic, they were not able to find specific "empathy genes" that were responsible for this.

They added that future research to find the genes that affect empathy would benefit from more people taking part in the study.

Gil McVean, professor of statistical genetics at the University of Oxford, told the BBC the study established that genes had a role in empathy, but this was "minor" compared to environmental factors.

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

Dr Edward Barker, a reader at the department of psychology at King's College London, said the paper had some "very interesting" findings and was a "first step" in exploring the link between our genes and empathy.

"But as the authors say, it's the first analysis of its kind and could benefit from a larger study," he added.