Genes influence empathy, but don't explain everything

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Participants in the study were given fictitious news reports about an unprovoked attack "with a baseball bat by an unknown assailant".

Researchers from the University of Cambridge found that genes play a role in how much empathy a person is capable of.

Researchers have found that around a tenth of our ability to recognise and respond appropriately to another person's thoughts and feelings comes down to our DNA.

"This new study demonstrates a role for genes in empathy, but we have not yet identified the specific genes that are involved", said Bourgeron, in a school statement.

The study from the University of Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, the CNRS and the genetics company 23andMe analysed information from more than 46,000 people, making it the largest genetic study of empathy to date. "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".

It 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".

"This is an important step towards understanding the role that genetics plays in empathy".

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In addition to genetic data from the customers, the study used the Empathy Quotient (EQ) self-reported test developed by University of Cambridge researchers 15 years ago.

The second result confirmed that women are more empathetic than men on average. All participants had given a saliva sample for DNA analysis, while completing a relevant psychological questionnaire to assess their degree of empathy.

They found at least 10 percent of the variation associated with genetic factors.

These signs of empathy had previously been put down to biological differences - but the latest study suggests otherwise. Genetics don't seem to influence that difference, however, leaving the door open for other potential influences like prenatal hormones and social factors.

Finally, it found that genetic variants associated with lower empathy are also associated with higher risk for autism. 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".

'This can give rise to disability no less challenging than other kinds of disability, such as dyslexia or visual impairment. "We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion".