Study finds that genes play a role in empathy

Only 10 per cent of the variation in people's empathy was down to genes Cambridge University found

The 60 questions that made up the EQ test focused on various aspects of empathy, including cognitive empathy (the ability to understand others' states of mind) and affective empathy (the ability to react appropriately to others).The former is known to be impaired, for example, in people with autism. It has two parts- the ability to recognise another person's thoughts and feelings, and the ability to respond with an appropriate emotion.

There is no objective measure of empathy. "We saw that men score, on average, 40, and women score, on average, 50". The study, the largest genetic study ever conducted on empathy, using data from more than 46,000 participants according to the Pasteur Institute which contributed to it, was published on March 12, 2018 in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Upbringing, education, and other external experiences may not be the only factors to influence empathy in a person.

The Linkage Disequilibrium Score Regression (LDSR) was used to find genetic patterns, and to correlate any patterns with the scores from the empathy assessment.

This implies that the sex difference in empathy is the result of other non-genetic biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialisation, both of which also differ between the sexes. "Indeed, at least a tenth of this variation is associated with genetic factors", reported the Pasteur Institute in a statement regarding the study.

The second result confirmed that women are more empathetic than men on average.

"This is an important step toward understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy", said Varun Warrier, a Cambridge doctoral student, and leader of the team.

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With genetics out of the equation, it's not clear why men have less empathy than women do, Warrier said.

They also found 11 SNPs that correlated with lower empathy scores - although they were merely of "suggestive significance", and not statistical significance, they report.

The new study has three important results.

"Finally, the study shows that genetic variations associated with lower empathy are also associated with a higher risk of autism", according to Cambridge.

"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", Bourgeron said. "This difficulty in reading emotions can become as disabling as any other disability", commented one of the main authors, Simon Baron-Cohen.

"We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion", he added.

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