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 empathy difficulty can give rise to a disability that is no less challenging than other kinds of disability". A study led by scientists from the University of Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, the CNRS and the genetics company 23andMe, which used information from more than 46,000 23andMe customers, first revealed that our empathy is partly down to genetics. This set of disorders affects indeed "cognitive empathy", namely the faculty to recognize the feelings of others. "We as a society need to support those with disabilities, with novel teaching methods, work-arounds or reasonable adjustments, to promote inclusion".
Fifteen years ago, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge developed the Empathy Quotient (EQ), a brief self-report measure of empathy.
"The results suggest that the genetic variations associated with empathy also play a role in psychiatric conditions and psychological traits", the paper concludes.
"Individually each gene plays a small role and it is hard to identify them", said one of the authors, Thomas Bourgeron.
The second result confirmed that women are more empathetic than men on average. Only people who were of 97 percent European ancestry or greater were included in the analysis.
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With genetics out of the equation, it's not clear why men have less empathy than women do, Warrier said. Indeed, at least a tenth of this variation is associated with genetic factors. This, according to the researchers, means that if a woman is more compassionate, it has to do either with non-genetic biological factors (eg hormonal influences) or with non-biological factors such as different upbringing and socialization. As well, the findings reveal that in cases where genes are associated with lower empathy levels, there's an associated increase in the risk of autism.
"These results offer a fascinating new perspective on the genetic influences that underpin empathy", said Dr. Thomas Bourgeron, who directs the Human Genetics and Cognitive Functions Unit at the Pasteur Institute.
Burgeron pointed out that "the new study shows that genes play a role in empathy, but we have not identified the specific genes involved".
"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 persons thoughts and feelings", said Simon Baron-Cohen, professor at Cambridge.