Empathy, the ability to understand and pay attention to the feelings of others, is mainly the product of our experience but also some of our genes, according to British and French researchers.
This discovery is one more step in the understanding of autism. This set of disorders affects indeed “cognitive empathy”, namely the faculty to recognize the feelings of others. The study, the largest genetic study ever conducted on empathy, using data from more than 46,000 participants according to the Pasteur Institute which contributed to it, was published on March 12, 2018 in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
Women show on average more empathy than men
There is no objective measure of empathy. But scientists have relied on the “empathy quotient,” as measured by a questionnaire developed in 2004 at the University of Cambridge. They compared the results of this questionnaire and the genome of these 46,000 people, analyzed from a saliva sample.
The results show that “Our empathy is partly genetic, because at least a tenth of this variation is associated with genetic factors,” the Pasteur Institute summed up in a statement.
“Individually each gene plays a small role and it is difficult to identify them,” said one of the authors, Thomas Bourgeron.
“The new study confirmed that women on average showed more empathy than men, but this difference is not due to our DNA,” the University of Cambridge said in a statement.
The difference empathy level in men and women could be explained by “other non-genetic biological factors”, for example hormonal factors or non-biological factors such as socialization, which both differ according to sex”.
Finally, the study shows that genetic variations associated with lower empathy are also associated with a higher risk of autism,” according to Cambridge. Highlighting genetic factors “helps us understand people like autistic people, who have trouble imagining the feelings and emotions of others. This difficulty in reading emotions can become as disabling as any other disability,” commented one of the main authors, Simon Baron-Cohen.
The origins of autism, which affects about one in every 100 people, remain largely unknown.