Empathetic People Are Made, Not Born

Empathetic people are made, not born, new research suggests. The largest ever study into the genetic basis of empathy, suggests that just 10 percent of the variation between people’s compassion and understanding is down to genes. It means, the vast majority of a person’s ability to recognise and respond appropriately to the needs and feelings of others, seems to be based on social factors, such as upbringing and environment.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge also confirmed previous studies suggesting that women are more empathetic than men, but found no genetic basis for the difference. And they discovered that genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with higher risk for autism. Cambridge doctoral student Varun Warrier, who led the study said, “This is an important step towards understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy. But keep in mind that only a tenth of individual differences in empathy in the population is due to genetics. It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90 percent.”

The Cambridge team worked with the genetics company 23andMe who took DNA samples from 46,000 customers and asked them to complete a questionnaire which measured their levels of empathy, known as EQ, empathy quotient. They then compared the genetic data to the EQ scores to determine how much empathy was linked to genes. Professor Thomas Bourgeron added: “This new study demonstrates a role for genes in empathy, but we have not yet identified the specific genes that are involved. Our next step is to gather larger samples to replicate these findings, and to pinpoint the precise biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy.” Professor Simon Baron-Cohen added: “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. This can give rise to disability no less challenging than other kinds of disability, such as dyslexia or visual impairment. We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, workarounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion.”

The research was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

Credit: Sarah Knapton for The Telegraph, 12 March 2018.