How much of our empathy is down to genes?

When you're going through a tough time, some people seem to know almost instinctively what you need, while others, although well-intended, may not be able to offer the emotional support you're hoping for. Is this because the ability to empathize is innate, or down to our genetic inheritance? A new study investigates.

Roughly defined as the ability to put yourself in somebody else's shoes, or to "feel their pain," empathy may seem — at least at first glance — similar to kindness or selflessness, which are things very much within our control and willpower.

However, there are many neurological and genetic underpinnings behind this deeply humane feeling.

For instance, recent research has shown that low levels of the hormone oxytocin might be responsible for low empathy, and other studies have shown that damage to certain brain areas can cause people to have less or no empathy at all.

Now, a study forays into the genetic roots of empathy and makes some interesting discoveries.

The research was carried out by scientists from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom — in collaboration colleagues at the Institut Pasteur, the Paris Diderot University, and the French National Center for Scientific Research — all of which are in Paris, France.

The first author of the study is Varun Warrier, of the University of Cambridge, and the findings were published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

A tenth of empathy variation is genetic

Warrier and colleagues collaborated with the genetics company 23andMe to collect saliva samples from 46,000 of the firm's customers.

Also, these customers completed an online test called the Empathy Quotient.This was designed 15 years ago by a team of Cambridge researchers led by Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen — who is also one of the co-lead authors on this new paper.

Some people are more empathetic than others, and the new study revealed that a significant part of how empathetic we are is down to genetics. In fact, 10 percent of the variation in empathy between people is due to genes, according to the research.

Another key finding — which confirms the results of previous studies — is that women tend to be more empathetic than men. However, the new research reveals that this is not due to genes; the researchers could not find empathy-related genetic differences between the two sexes.

This suggests that sex differences in empathy may be down to non-genetic cultural factors such as socialization and education, or non-genetic biological factors such as hormonal influences.

The final significant finding of the study regards people living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Low empathy-related genetic variations were also found to correlate with a higher likelihood of autism.

The role of genetics in empathy

Prof. Baron-Cohen — who's known for his lifelong research on ASD and empathy — comments on the findings. He notes, "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 empathy difficulty," he adds, "can give rise to a disability that is no less challenging than other kinds of disability. We, as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, workarounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion."

The first author of the study also weighs in.

"This is an important step towards understanding the role that genetics plays in empathy. 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."

Varun Warrier

Also, co-lead study author Prof. Thomas Bourgeron explains, "These results offer a fascinating new perspective on the genetic influences that underpin empathy."

"The next step," he adds, "is to study an even larger number of people, to replicate these findings and to pinpoint the biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy."