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Empathy May Be Partly Inherited, Study Suggests

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Genes are responsible for a lot of things, and as it turns out, empathy is one of them. A person’s genetic background can help build relationships with people, and influences behavior in social situations, a new study says.

British scientists suggest that empathy is not just developed through a person’s upbringing, environmental factors, or life experiences. It is also partially inherited, the BBC reports.

A groundbreaking study of 46,000 people found that genes play a role in how empathic people are, also finding that women are generally more empathic than men. The participants had their “empathy quotient” measured using a questionnaire, and were asked to give saliva samples for DNA testing.

The team then examined the participants’ genes and looked for differences that might explain why some people are more empathic than others. They discovered that at least a 10% difference in empathy could be attributed to genetics.

Varun Warrier from the University of Cambridge, lead author on the study, said,

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

Of the maximum score of 80 from the EQ questionnaire, women scored an average of 50 points, compared to 41 for men. This means women are generally more empathic than men, although the researchers could not find a clear answer as to why in terms of genetics.

In addition, they found that genetic differences linked to lower empathy had a higher risk for autism.

The scientists acknowledge that their study has limitations, as the questionnaire was self-reported. Also, while there were genetic differences, they were not able to find a specific “empathy gene” that would be responsible for the differences. More research is needed on the subject, they recommended.

The study was published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

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