Genes play a role in empathy

Washington: Turns out, our empathy is not just a result of our education and experiences but is also influenced by genetic variations to some degree.

Empathy plays a key role in human relationships. It has two parts-the ability to recognize another person’s thoughts and feelings, and the ability to respond with an appropriate emotion. The first part is called “cognitive empathy” and the second part is called “affective empathy”.

Empathy Quotient or EQ, a brief self-report measure of empathy developed by University of Cambridge scientists, demonstrated that some of us are more empathetic than others, and that women, on average, are slightly more empathetic than men.

They also showed that, on average, autistic people have more difficulties with cognitive empathy, even though their affective empathy may be intact.

A study led by scientists from the University of Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, the CNRS and the genetics company 23andMe, which used information from more than 46,000 23andMe customers, first revealed that our empathy is partly down to genetics.

Indeed, at least a tenth of this variation is associated with genetic factors.

The findings also confirmed that women are, on average, more empathetic than men. However, this variation is not a result of DNA as no differences were observed in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women.

This implies that the difference in empathy between the sexes is caused by other factors such as socialization, or non-genetic biological factors like prenatal hormone influences, which also differ between the sexes.

The scientists observed that genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with higher risk for autism.

“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,” researcher Varun Warrier explained.

According to researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, 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 empathy difficulty can give rise to a disability that is no less challenging than other kinds of disability. We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion,” he added.

The results of the study will be published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.(ANI)