Empathy, emotional matching to the mental state of another person, is not just a matter of raising and experiencing, but also of genes.
The new study, carried out by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the Pasteur Institute, the University of Dennye Diderot in Paris, the National Research Center of France (CNRS) and the Genetic Analysis Company 23andMe, headed by the British Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and the French Tomas Bourgeron, has highlighted the genetic background of empathy.
Empathy has two components, one cognitive and one emotional: on the one hand, the ability to recognize one’s thoughts and feelings, and on the other, the ability to respond emotionally to the mental state of the other. 15 years ago, British scientists developed the first Impressionist Index, which measures both of these forms.
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). The study analyzed data for more than 46,000 people. All participants had given a saliva sample for DNA analysis, while completing a relevant psychological questionnaire to assess their degree of empathy.
It was found that the degree of empathy of a person is partly due to genetic factors, about 10%.
It was also confirmed that the average woman has greater empathy than the average man, but not DNA, as there were no differences between the two sexes in the empathic-related genes. This, according to the researchers, means that if a woman is more compassionate, it has to do either with non-genetic biological factors (eg hormonal influences) or with non-biological factors such as different upbringing and socialization.
The study also found that the genetic factors associated with lower empathy are also associated with a higher risk for autism.
“The new study shows the small but important role that genes play in empathy. But, we must not forget that only 10% of the differences between people in empathy are due to genetics, and the remaining 90% are explained by non-genetic factors, “said researcher Varun Worner.
Burgeron pointed out that “the new study shows that genes play a role in empathy, but we have not identified the specific genes involved. Our next step will be to resume research with a larger genetic sample. “