Scientists have long been interested in understanding the underpinnings of empathy. Being able to share the feelings of another person plays a critical role in our inner lives, how we behave towards others, and the way human societies function as a whole. Harnessing the power of empathy, some suggest, could go a long way toward solving problems like racism and sexism, and help us better understand non-neurotypical people. At the same time, another corner of the research world worries that constant immersion in technology is making it harder for today’s kids to empathise.
In recent years, science has gone a long way toward turning empathy into something tangible. Most of that research has come from the realm of neuroscience, as researchers unravel the complex interplay of neural networks that enables us to perceive the emotions of others, and to resonate with them emotionally and cognitively.
New work published Sunday in the journal Translational Psychiatry by scientists at 23andMe, the University of Cambridge, and the University Paris Diderot confirms that our genes impact empathy, too.
“We have been able to put a number on how much of the differences in empathy are attributed to genetics,” Varun Warrier, a PhD student at Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre and one of the study’s lead authors, told Gizmodo. “Essentially what we found is that approximately 10 per cent of the set of differences in empathy in the population is due to genetics.”
To investigate the role of genes in empathy, researchers conducted what’s known as a genome-wide association study, or GWAS, analysing genetic data from 46,000 23andMe customers. Researchers also had study participants complete a survey known as the Empathy Quotient, often used to measure both cognitive empathy (the ability to recognise another person’s thoughts and feelings) and affective empathy (the ability to respond appropriately to those thoughts and feelings). It is the largest genetic study of empathy to date.
The study is exciting because it confirms that there does appear to be a genetic link to empathy, as earlier studies of the behaviour of twins have suggested. It found that more empathetic people had certain genes in common, but the study was not large enough to pin down which genes might be playing a role. And while any understanding of how our genes contribute to empathy could be important, it did find that role to be a small one.
The study also confirmed that women are on average more empathetic than men, though it found that difference did not seem to be genetic. Instead, Warrier suggested, it might have to do with the way different genders are socialised, or even other biological factors, like hormones.
The study’s third important finding was that genetic variants associated with lower empathy also were associated with a higher risk for autism. Warrier is most excited about this finding.
“Autistic people have difficulties in social interaction. That’s one of the defining criteria for someone to be diagnosed with autism. And we’re trying to sort out why,” he said.
“This can be useful because then we can have prioritised genes for the investigation in autism, but also we can get a handle how autistic people are different from each other,” he said.
Next, Warrier said, they need larger studies to help validate their findings and begin to pin down the exact role that genes play in empathy. For years before modern science began to show the importance of nurture and environment, many people thought that empathy was a trait you were born with. Warrier cautioned against reading his study’s results as confirmation of that dated thinking. Their study, he said, only showed genetics play a small role in our ability to empathise. Other factors both biological and environmental influence the majority of people’s variation in empathy.
“These things are extremely complex,” said Warrier. “Each variant would only explain a very minuscule proportion of the difference in empathy.”