It helps us to make close connections with people, and influences how we behave in a range of situations, from the workplace to a party. Now scientists say empathy is not just something we develop through our upbringing and life experiences - it is also partly inherited. A study of 46,000 people found evidence for the first time that genes have a role in how empathetic we are.
And it also found that women are generally more empathetic than men. Empathy has an important role in our relationships. It helps us recognise other people’s emotions and it guides us to respond appropriately, such as by knowing when someone is upset and wants to be comforted. It is largely considered to be something we develop through childhood and our life experiences.Participants in the study had their “empathy quotient” (EQ) measured with a questionnaire, and gave saliva samples for DNA testing. Scientists then looked for differences in their genes that could explain why some of us are more empathetic than others. They found that at least 10% of the differences in how empathetic people are is down to genetics.
Varun Warrier, from the University of Cambridge who led the study, said: “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.” The research also found differences in empathy between the sexes.
Out of a maximum of 80 from the EQ questionnaire, women on average scored 50, as opposed to 41 for men. But researchers said they were unable to find any genetic differences behind this. The scientists also found genetic differences that are associated with lower empathy were also linked to a higher risk of autism. However, they acknowledged there were limitations to the research.
The empathy quotient is a self-reported survey, which can skew results.