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Genes play a role in empathy, says study

Genes play a role in empathy, says study

Empathy has two parts: the ability to recognise another person's thoughts and feelings, and the ability to respond with an appropriate emotion to someone else's thoughts and feelings.

Previous research showed that some of us are more empathetic than others, and that on average, women are slightly more empathetic than men.

Previous studies have shown that some people have greater empathy than others and it has also been found that people with autism disorders have a lower empathy index (especially cognitive). As part of the study, the 46,000+ 23andMe customers provided the genetics company with saliva samples and completed the EQ test through an online portal. However, non-genetic biological factors could also play a role.

The study was led by Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, and Professors Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, Thomas Bourgeron, of the University Paris Diderot and the Institut Pasteur, and David Hinds, Principal Scientist at 23andMe.

The Linkage Disequilibrium Score Regression (LDSR) was used to find genetic patterns, and to correlate any patterns with the scores from the empathy assessment.

"Second, the new study confirmed that women on average showed more empathy than men".

However, they found no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women, suggesting that the variations between the sexes are likely to come down to factors such as cultural expectations and, possibly, hormones.

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"Genetically, [men and women] seem identical, but there is a difference in the empathy score, which is quite significant", Warrier told Live Science.

Turns out, our empathy is not just a result of our education and experiences, but is also influenced by genetic variations to some degree.

They also found 11 SNPs that correlated with lower empathy scores - although they were merely of "suggestive significance", and not statistical significance, they report.

"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.

"It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90 per cent", he said. Highlighting genetic factors "helps us understand people like autistic people, who have trouble imagining the feelings and emotions of others".

Baron-Cohen also stressed that society should offer support to people with disabilities by using "novel teaching methods, workarounds, or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion".