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Your ability to empathize is partially determined by your genes

Empathy is what we use to relate to other people around us and respond to their feelings and emotions in the correct manner. It helps us to build and sustain relationships and share our emotional sides with each other. But now, a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry suggests that an individual’s ability to empathize is not only due to our upbringing and experience, but is also a result of our genes.

There are two parts to empathy: the ability to recognize another person’s thoughts and feelings (known as “cognitive empathy”) and the ability to respond with an appropriate emotion to someone else’s thoughts and feelings (known as “affective empathy”). Over a decade ago, researchers at the University of Cambridge developed the Empathy Quotient (EQ), which is a self-report measure of empathy that measures both parts.

Past studies have found that on average, women are slightly more empathetic than men, and that autistic people score lower on the EQ. Now, this Cambridge research group has teamed up with the genetics company 23andMe, along with a team of international scientists, to report the results of the largest genetic study of empathy ever. This study used information from over 46,000 23andMe customers, who all completed the EQ online and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis.

Ultimately, the study had three major results. The first of these is that how empathetic we are is partly due to genetics. In fact, about 10% of this variation is a result of genetic factors. Secondly, the study confirmed that women are more empathetic than men, on average. Interestingly, this difference is not due to our DNA, as there were no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women. This result indicates that sex difference in empathy is a result of other biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialization. Lastly, the study determined that genetic variants linked to lower empathy are also associated with a higher risk for autism.

This is an important step towards understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy,” says Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student and lead author of the study. “But keep in mind that only a tenth of individual differences in empathy in the population are due to genetics. It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90%.”

Furthermore, while the study has shown that genes play a role in empathy, it didn’t determine the specific genes that are involved. The researchers plan to address this moving forward with additional studies, and use future findings to help us better understand the factors behind autism and other disabilities.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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