A study by scientists in the U.K., France, and the U.S. suggests that the degree of empathy we feel toward our fellow man is at least partly down to our genes. A genome-wide association study (GWAS) led by scientists at the University of Cambridge, U.K., found that about 10% of variability in self-reported empathy is associated with genetic factors. The study, involving more than 46,000 volunteers identified a link between genes associated with lower self-reported empathy and an increased risk of autism, while genes associated positively with empathy slightly increased the risk for schizophrenia and anorexia nervosa.The study data also indicated that while women are generally more empathetic than men, gender differences in empathy aren’t genetic, which implies roles for biological factors such as hormones and/or environmental and societal influences in sex-related differences.
“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,” comments Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., who is co-corresponding author of the team’s paper published today in Translational Psychiatry (“Genome-Wide Analyses of Self-Reported Empathy: Correlations with Autism, Schizophrenia, and Anorexia Nervosa”).
“Empathy is the ability to recognize and respond to the emotional states of other individuals,” the authors write. “It is an important psychological process that facilitates navigating social interactions and maintaining relationships, which are important for well-being.” There are two different aspects to empathy. Cognitive empathy refers to the ability to recognize another person’s thoughts and feelings, while affective empathy is the ability to respond with an appropriate emotion.
Results from prior psychological studies have suggested that empathy may be linked with certain psychiatric disorders. What isn’t understood is whether there is a causal relationship between empathy and the risk for developing a psychiatric disorder, or whether, conversely, differences in empathy could themselves be caused by an underlying psychiatric disorder. “Whilst empathy is clearly shaped by early experience, parenting, and other social factors, different lines of evidence suggest that empathy is partly biological,” the authors write. However, the genetic basis of empathy has not been investigated in depth the authors write. “To date, no study has systematically investigated the genetic architecture of empathy using genome-wide association studies.”
The University of Cambridge team previously developed a well-validated self-reporting measure of empathy, known as the Empathy Quotient, or EQ, which measures both cognitive and affective empathy. For the current study, the researchers collaborated with scientists at Paris Diderot University and CNRS in France, and the personalized genetics company 23andMe, to carry out a GWAS involving more than 46,000 volunteers who are participants in 23andMe research. Each participant completed the EQ online and provided a saliva sample for analysis.
Results form the GWAS didn’t identify any genome-wide significant single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), but did highlight 22 suggestive loci. The researchers also carried out an analysis to correlate EQ with the psychiatric disorders autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anorexia nervosa, bipolar disorder, and depression, and to identify any sex-specific correlations with these psychiatric conditions. The results highlighted a negative correlation between EQ and autism. “We identified a significant negative genetic correlation between the EQ and autism,” the authors write. “This empathy difficulty can give rise to a disability that is no less challenging than other kinds of disability,” Dr. Baron-Cohen comments. “We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, workarounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion.”
The GWAS data also highlighted significant genetic associations between EQ and either schizophrenia or anorexia nervosa, which were gender-related. “…we identified significant genetic correlations” between EQ in females (EQ-F) and anorexia…and EQ in males (EQ-M) and autism,” the researchers note. Conversely there was no apparent genetic basis to sex-based difference in empathy. “We did not find any significant differences in heritability between males and females,” they state.
“This is the first GWAS to investigate the genetic architecture of self-reported empathy,” the authors write. “The results suggest that the genetic variations associated with empathy also play a role in psychiatric conditions and psychological traits.”
“These results offer a fascinating new perspective on the genetic influences that underpin empathy,” comments Thomas Bourgeron, Ph.D., a professor at Paris Diderot University, and director of the Human Genetics and Cognitive Functions Unit at the Institute Pasteur/CNRS. “Each specific gene plays a small role and this makes it difficult to identify them.”
“This is an important step toward understanding the role that genetics plays in empathy,” adds co-corresponding author Varun Warrier at the University of Cambridge. “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 nongenetic factors.”
“The next step is to study an even larger number of people, to replicate these findings, and to pinpoint the biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy,” Dr. Bourgeron notes.