Genes Affect Your Empathy Levels, Like Experiences Do

Researchers also found that genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with higher risk for autism

Empathy, emotional matching to the mental state of another person, is not just a matter of raising and experiencing, but also of genes. Studies in the past have explored empathy and linked it to both health benefits and harmful effects.

For the first time, researchers investigated the genetic architecture of empathy using genome-wide association studies, according to results published Monday in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

The results show that "Our empathy is partly genetic, because at least a tenth of this variation is associated with genetic factors", the Pasteur Institute summed up in a statement.

The Empathy Quotient (EQ) was developed fifteen years ago by scientists at the University of Cambridge to measure empathy in adults.

"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", said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of Cambridge University. The scientists found autistic people have more difficulties with cognitive empathy, despite intact affective empathy. As part of the study, the 46,000+ 23andMe customers provided the genetics company with saliva samples and completed the EQ test through an online portal.

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In a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the Cambridge team, working with the genetics company 23andMe and a team of global scientists, report the results of the largest genetic study of empathy using information from more than 46,000 23andMe customers.

They have also confirmed what many may have already suspected - that women tend to be more empathetic than men.

"The difference empathy level in men and women could be explained by "other non-genetic biological factors", for example hormonal factors or non-biological factors such as socialization, which both differ according to sex". But keep in mind that only a tenth of individual differences in empathy in the population are due to genetics. Genetics don't seem to influence that difference, however, leaving the door open for other potential influences like prenatal hormones and social factors. "Each specific gene plays a small role and this makes it hard to identify them". "We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion".

This discovery is one more step in the understanding of autism. As well, the findings reveal that in cases where genes are associated with lower empathy levels, there's an associated increase in the risk of autism.

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