Empathy has long been considered to be a matter of upbringing, but a new study has found that genetics also plays a role.

Image credits: William Stitt.

Empathy plays a vital role in our day-to-day interactions, even though we rarely think about it. There are several ways to go about understanding empathy, but most commonly, it is regarded as the ability to understand or feel what another person (or animal) is experiencing, from their own perspective. In other words, it’s your ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand what they are experiencing. Of course, not everyone is equally skilled at this.

The most standard way of measuring a person’s empathy is the so-called Empathy Quotient (EQ) — think of it as the emotional analog of IQ. Empathy is typically split into two parts: firstly, the ability to recognize and understand another person’s situation (cognitive empathy), and secondly, the ability to respond to it appropriately (affective empathy). The EQ measures the sum of these parts.

Empathy has been studied from a number of different angles, but no matter how scientists went about it, upbringing was always the central part. Now, a new study led by scientists from the University of Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, the CNRS and the genetics company 23andMe suggests that genetics might also play a role — albeit a small one.

Researchers analyzed data from more than 46,000 23andMe customers, finding that we owe a tenth of our empathy to genetic factors. Lead author Varun Warrier 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%.”

The team also confirmed what previous studies had already reported, that on average, women are more empathetic than men. However, this difference isn’t genetic — instead, this difference can be explained either by biological differences (such as prenatal hormone influences)  or non-biological factors (such as socialization), both of which also differ between the sexes.

Professor Thomas Bourgeron, who was a co-author of the study, added:

“This new study demonstrates a role for genes in empathy, but we have not yet identified the specific genes that are involved. Our next step is to gather larger samples to replicate these findings, and to pin-point the precise biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy.”

Researchers were also interested in how these genetic differences can be connected to autism. They found that, on average, autistic people score significantly lower on the EQ. Even if their affective empathy was intact, they often struggle with cognitive empathy. In other words, they can react to emotions properly if they recognize them, but this is often challenging for them.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, also a part of the team, comments:

“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. This can give rise to disability no less challenging than other kinds of disability, such as dyslexia or visual impairment. We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion.”

Researchers hope that these new findings will help develop better approaches for dealing with autism. However, there doesn’t seem to be a silver bullet. There’s just too much variation from person to person to develop a one-size-fits-all approach to inclusion and therapy.

 “First, we have identified only a fraction of the genes associated with autism. Second, no two autistic people are alike. Third, within the spectrum autistic people have different strengths and difficulties. Finally, those with a clinical diagnosis blend seamlessly into those in the population who don’t have a diagnosis but simply have a lot of autistic traits. We all have some autistic traits – this spectrum runs right through the population on a bell curve.”

If you’re curious about your own empathy, researchers at the Autism Research Center (which is also where this team works) have developed several tests related to emotional intelligence and empathy, as well as tests related to autism. You can try them out for free here.