Is Empathy Genetic?
A recent study is shedding new light on humans’ ability to show empathy to one another.
When you are enduring a difficult time, some people know just what to do, say, and how to be there for you. These are often people who are capable of expressing empathy.
Those who are not empathic, seem to flounder as they are incapable of offering emotional support.
The question remains, does our ability to empathize stem from genetic inheritance, or is this something external that we learn from our environment? The answer is more complicated than it seems and may surprise you.
Keep reading to learn more about the relationship between empathy and genetics.
What The Research Says
We might think that empathy is an emotion we learn through our environment and that different people show varying degrees of it. A team of scientists decided to take this concept further and explore any connection that might exist between someone’s ability to show empathy and the genetic code written in their DNA.
Empathy can be understood in two parts:
- The first is called cognitive empathy and refers to a person’s ability to recognize someone else’s thoughts and feelings.
- The second is called affective empathy and refers to a person’s ability to display the appropriate emotion as a reaction to someone’s thoughts and feelings.
When you combine cognitive empathy with affective empathy, you can get a fuller picture of how empathic someone is.
Recently, a study was conducted to deeply understand empathy and any connection it may have to genetics.
The study was performed by a team of international scientists and published in the journal of Translational Psychiatry.
This study took DNA from 46,000 23andMe customers who had submitted their DNA through a simple saliva sample.
The study came up with three critical results:
- The first is that the study confirmed the level of empathy a person is capable of is related to genetics.
- The second insight revealed that women tend to be more empathetic than men.
- Lastly, people who had genetic variations that suggested lower empathy also showed a higher risk of autism.
This incredible study confirmed that there is indeed a genetic link between empathy and your DNA.
Now, researchers and scientists are on their way to understanding this link and how it manifests in various forms and affects our interactions with one another.
The Ten Percent Variation
The study reveals an essential connection between genetics and empathy.
However, it is important to look at the details to get the full picture.
One of the lead authors of the study pointed out an important aspect of the research:
- Only 10% of individual differences in empathy are a result of genetics.
- To truly understand empathy, the non-genetic factors that comprise the other 90% must be considered.
There is a large difference between genetics and external factors that influence empathy. This leaves us with more questions about how empathy is inherited and how it can be developed.
Additionally, while the study did prove a genetic link to empathy, the sample was not large enough to understand precisely which genes are responsible for displaying empathy.
The more DNA becomes front and center and available to millions of people, the more likely additional studies will be able to investigate this issue further.
Can You Become Empathetic?
Those who want to become more empathetic should not be too discouraged by the study.
While a link does indeed exist between genetics and empathy, there is still a lot you can do to become more empathic.
Much of our emotional intelligence is picked up through our environment and learned as children.
If a child is taught to be sensitive and to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings, the more likely that child will be able to express empathy.
Even children who do not grow up in such an environment can develop these skills.
Working on mindfulness, bettering your listening skills, and even working with a therapist are simple things you can do to become a more empathetic person.
Think of building empathy like working out a muscle. It takes time, patience, and practice, but eventually, you will see results.
The same is true for personal achievements and goals.
Being an empathetic person will help to fortify your relationships with family members, your spouse, and even your coworkers.
The ability to truly connect and help others can have positive, lasting effects.