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In another nature versus nurture argument, researchers are asking if some people are just wired to have a lot of empathy in their being. It is not because they were nurtured to be inherently caring and sensitive to the feelings of others, Tech Times reported.
Using the personalized genetics company, 23andMe, a group of researchers analyzed the empathy of almost 50,000 people. They found that genes may explain the varying levels of understanding other human beings.
Based on the Empathy Quotient scores, the scientists from the University of Cambridge, Institut Pasteur, the Paris Diderot University, and 23andMe evaluated the empathy of the participants. They published the results on March 12 in Translational Psychiatry. The researchers used genome-wide association studies, a kind of statistical analysis, to highlight the differences in genes linked with changes in empathy.
Because of empathy, a person is allowed to recognize the emotions of other people which is a vital aspect of human social interaction. People are guided by how they should respond when they communicate with another person who is obviously upset, frustrated, in agony, or vulnerable. As people grow older, humans develop empathy as they are shaped by different life experiences.
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The study attempted to look for empathy genes. However, after they got the EQ of the volunteers, the researchers searched for differences in their genes to explain their being more empathic than others. But they discovered only 10 percent of the difference is genetic.
Varun Warrier, a researcher from the University of Cambridge who led the study pointed out that it is an important step toward understanding the role which DNA plays in empathy. Due to the low percentage, he said that studying the non-genetic factors of empathy is as vital as looking at genes.
However, Varun pointed out that because the EQ survey is self-administered, there is a possibility that the results could be skewed depending on how honest the answers of the volunteers were. Although the researchers discovered genetic differences among those who were more empathic, they failed to find a specific gene that is responsible for giving someone a sharper sense of empathy. But Warrier suggested that any human attribute has roots in DNA.
The research of almost 47,000 adults discovered that the genes apparently explain 10 percent of the variance in empathy from one person to the other. Warrier added that some of the genes are also associated with the risks of autism, schizophrenia, and anorexia.
He explained that understanding contributes to differences in empathy has been observed in different psychiatric conditions. If we understand how the genes contribute to the differences in empathy, this may provide people with insights into the genetic basis for some of the psychiatric conditions.
Empathy is an important trait that helps us to understand and respond to what someone else feels or goes through. Warrier stressed that it shapes how humans bond and interact with each other.
By studying the traits of empathy, Warrier said that it might help scientists understand better how people’s environment, such as their social influences and upbringing, build their ability to empathize.
The people gave a saliva sample for genetic analysis and finished a standard set of 60 questions which measures the person’s capacity for empathy. But Warrier admitted that the researchers did not analyze all of the genes in the human genome. He cited an earlier study on twins that said the genes explained about only one-third of the variance in empathy from one person to the next one.
The researchers also discovered that certain genetic factors associated with low empathy have been linked to a higher risk of autism. He also cited previous research that revealed certain genes tied to greater empathy are associated with higher risks of anorexia or schizophrenia.
Warrier pointed out that if genes explain only 10 percent of the capacity for empathy, it also means non-genetic factors have a much bigger role, US News reported. He added that social factors such as upbringing and life experiences are likely keys; other biological influences, such as hormones, may also influence.
Empathy in twins
Smithsonian reported that the study, published in the Translational Psychiatry journal, confirmed previous studies that examined empathy in twins. Identical twins tended to respond more like one another when confronted with an adult who is pretending to be in distress compared to fraternal twins.
When it comes to gender, the study noted that women, on the average, are more empathic than men. However, the difference is not because of genetic factors. The University of Cambridge stressed that there were no differences in the genes that contributed to empathy in male and female. It is the result of other non-genetic biological factors such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialization which is also different between the male and female genders.
[researchpaper 리서치페이퍼=Vittorio Hernandez 기자]