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How do genes affect empathy?
The results of a new study suggest that empathy is not only a result of education and experience, but is also partly influenced by genes. This is an important step in understanding the small but important role of genetics in empathy.
In their current study, scientists from the internationally recognized University of Cambridge and the University Paris Diderot found that empathy is partially influenced by our genes. The experts published the results of their study in the journal "Translational Psychiatry".
What is empathy?
Empathy consists of two parts: the ability to recognize another person's thoughts and feelings and the ability to respond appropriately to another person's thoughts and feelings. The first part is referred to as cognitive empathy and the second part as affective empathy, explain the doctors. 15 years ago, a team of scientists from Cambridge University developed the Empathy Quotient (EQ), a brief self-assessment of empathy. The EQ measures both parts of empathy.
Women are more sensitive than men
Previous research has shown that some people are more empathetic than others, and that women are, on average, more empathetic than men. It was also shown that autistic people do worse on average in EQ, because they have problems with cognitive empathy, although their affective empathy can be intact, the authors explain.
Doctors analyzed data from more than 46,000 subjects
For the current study, the researchers analyzed the data from more than 46,000 participants. These subjects took an online EQ test and also provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis. The investigation showed three very important results:
First, it showed that our empathy is partly due to genetics.
Second, the study found that women are on average more empathetic than men. However, this difference is not due to DNA, because there were no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women. This implies that the gender difference in empathy is the result of other non-genetic biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences or non-biological factors such as socialization, which differ between the sexes.
Third, the experts found that genetic variants associated with less empathy are also associated with a higher risk of autism.
A tenth of the differences in empathy are genetic
These findings are an important step in understanding the small but important role of genetics in empathy. About a tenth of the individual differences in empathy in the population are genetic. It will be very important in the future to understand the non-genetic factors that make up the remaining 90 percent, the scientists say.
More research is needed
“This new study shows a role for genes in empathy, but we haven't yet identified the specific genes that are involved. Our next step is to collect larger samples to reproduce these results and determine the exact biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy, ”said Professor Thomas Bourgeron of the University of Paris Diderot in a press release.
Society needs to better support people with autism
"Realizing that only a fraction of why we differ in empathy is due to genetic factors helps us understand people with autism who have difficulty imagining someone else's thoughts and feelings," says Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. Society needs to support people with disabilities with new teaching methods or appropriate adjustments to promote inclusion. There are several key challenges in this area and only a fraction of the genes associated with autism have been identified. In addition, all people with autism are different. Autistic people have different strengths and difficulties. This must be taken into account when dealing with affected people. (as)