Study finds that genes play a role in empathy

The largest ever study looking at the link between empathy and genetics has found nothing in men’s DNA to suggest women are more caring than men

The largest ever study looking at the link between empathy and genetics has found nothing in men’s DNA to suggest women are more caring than men

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.

"The largest genetic study conducted on empathy, using data from more than 46,000 customers of 23andMe", according to the Pasteur Institute, who contributed to the research, has been published Monday in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

There is no objective measure of empathy.

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

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

Fifteen years ago, scientists at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom developed the Empathy Quotient (EQ), a brief self-report measure of empathy.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Center at the University of Cambridge, who also co-led the study, said, "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".

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Previous studies have shown that some people have greater empathy than others and it has also been found that people with autism disorders have a lower empathy index (especially cognitive). Women, on average, are slightly more empathetic than men.

In a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the Cambridge team, working with the genetics company 23andMe and a team of worldwide scientists, report the results of the largest genetic study of empathy using information from more than 46,000 23andMe customers. All participants had given a saliva sample for DNA analysis, while completing a relevant psychological questionnaire to assess their degree of empathy.

Like the study 15 years ago, researchers found women are, on average, more empathetic than men. Indeed, at least a tenth of this variation is associated with genetic factors.

Varun Warrier, of Cambridge University, said: "This is an important step... We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion". Though the analysis "revealed no significant difference between the heritability in the males-only and the females-only datasets", causes of the sex difference may include non-genetic biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialization.

The new study has three important results.

This discovery is one more step in the understanding of autism.

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