Genes influence empathy, but don't explain everything: study

Empathy, a key factor in healthy human relationships, is partly influenced by genetics, according to a newly published study. The work was done by 23andMe, a genetics company, as well as researchers with the University of Cambridge, the CNRS, Institut Pasteur, and Paris Diderot University. During the work, researchers found that women often have higher levels of empathy than men, but genes don't explain the difference.

The study, which has been published in Translational Psychiatry, evaluated data from more than 46,000 individuals who used 23andMe's services. This is said to be the largest study on empathy as it relates to genetics, helping shed light on why some people may experience greater degrees of it than others.

In addition to genetic data from the customers, the study used the Empathy Quotient (EQ) self-reported test developed by University of Cambridge researchers 15 years ago. 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.

The results reveal that while genes do have a role in the degree of empathy someone experiences, it isn't the only factor at play. "This is an important step towards understanding the role that genetics plays in empathy," said study lead Varun Warrier of the University of Cambridge. "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."

Among the study's findings is confirmation that, on average, women experience higher levels of empathy than men. Genetics don't seem to influence that difference, however, leaving the door open for other potential influences like prenatal hormones and social factors. 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.

SOURCE: EurekAlert