GENES play a significant role in how empathetic people are, according to a new study from the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK. Among other possible implications, the findings could lead to changes in the way autism is identified and result in new strategies to combat the condition.
Using genetic information from 46,000 people, the authors were able to make three major discoveries. They showed that firstly a tenth of the variation in empathy was determined by genetic factors. Secondly, they demonstrated that women were more empathetic than men on average; however, this was not due to genetic differences, suggesting that other factors, such as prenatal hormone difference or socialisation, may be the reasons why women tend to have more empathy. Thirdly, a higher risk of autism was associated with genetic variants linked to lower empathy.
Link to Autism
This ties in with previous research that showed that autistic people score lower on average on the Empathy Quotient (EQ), a scale that measures two aspects of empathy: cognitive empathy and affective empathy. The former is the ability to recognise another’s thoughts and feelings and the latter the ability to respond to these feelings with appropriate empathy. Autistic people were shown to struggle with cognitive empathy despite affective empathy remaining normal.
Prof Simon Baron-Cohen, University of Cambridge, commented: “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, work-arounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion.”
Overall, the study displays new insights into how human behaviour is influenced by genetic differences. The next step for research is to pinpoint the specific genes and precise biological pathways involved in individual variations in empathy.
James Coker, Reporter
For the source and further information about the study, click here.