Why do certain people exhibit tremendous displays of empathy? Were they nurtured to be inherently caring of and sensitive to others’ feelings, or are they simply wired that way? A new study claims the latter is more likely.
A team of researchers studied the empathy of nearly 50,000 people by analyzing their DNA via personalized genetics company 23andMe and discovered that genes might explain why people have varying levels when it comes to in understanding their fellow human beings.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge, the Paris Diderot University, Institut Pasteur, and 23andMe evaluated the participants’ empathy based on their Empathy Quotient scores. The results were published March 12 in Translational Psychiatry. In their study, the researchers applied a kind of statistical analysis called genome-wide association studies to highlight that differences in genes are associated with changes in empathy.
What is empathy, first of all? Well, it’s an important component of human social interaction that allows an individual to recognize the emotions of other people. More than that, it also helps guide how people should respond when communicating with another person who’s clearly upset, in agony, frustrated, or vulnerable. It is largely considered to be something humans develop as they age, molded by various life experiences, as BBC notes.
Basically, the study suggests some people might just have the genes for it. After getting the participants’ EQ, the researchers looked for differences in their genes that could explain why some of them are more empathetic than others. They found that at least 10 percent of the differences is because of genes.
“This is an important step towards understanding the role that genetics plays in empathy,” said Varun Warrier, a researcher from the University of Cambridge who led the study. However, he does note that because of the low percentage, studying the non-genetic factors of empathy is as crucial as looking at genes.
“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 study has some weakness, however. For starters, the EQ survey is self-administered, meaning the results might be skewed depending on how honest the participants’ answers were. What’s more, though they found genetic differences between those who were more empathetic, they weren’t able to find a specific gene responsible for giving a person a sharper sense of empathy. Even still, Warrier suggests that any human attribute has roots in genetics.
“Even something like empathy that most people might think is not genetic does have genetic correlates.”