Empathy, the ability to understand and pay attention to the feelings of others, is mainly the product of our experience but also a bit of it is in our genes, showed the British and French researchers. Genes play a key role too, according to scientists from the University of Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) and the genetics company 23andMe. This, according to the researchers, means that if a woman is more compassionate, it has to do either with non-genetic biological factors (eg hormonal influences) or with non-biological factors such as different upbringing and socialization.
"The new study shows the small but important role that genes play in empathy".
Empathy has two components, one cognitive and one emotional: on the one hand, the ability to recognize one's thoughts and feelings, and on the other, the ability to respond emotionally to the mental state of the other.
There is no objective measure of empathy but scientists have relied on the "empathy quotient", which is measured by a 2004 questionnaire developed at the University of Cambridge.
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More than 46,000 users completed a EQ online test and provided a DNA sample for analysis.
"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.
They have also confirmed what many may have already suspected - that women tend to be more empathetic than men.
They found at least 10 percent of the variation associated with genetic factors.
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First, the team reported that a tenth of humans' degree of empathy is due to genetic factors - confirming the previous research that examined empathy in identical versus non-identical twins. "The next step is to study an even larger number of people, to replicate these findings and to pinpoint the biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy".
The study also found that the genetic factors associated with lower empathy are also associated with a higher risk for autism. Genetics don't seem to influence that difference, however, leaving the door open for other potential influences like prenatal hormones and social factors.
However, this difference was not due to DNA as there were no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women. "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".
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