Women are more empathetic than men

Only 10 per cent of the variation in people's empathy was down to genes Cambridge University found

For the current study, the researchers collaborated with scientists at Paris Diderot University and CNRS in France, and the personalized genetics company 23andMe, to carry out a GWAS involving more than 46,000 volunteers who are participants in 23andMe research.

The new study found three important results. While the former is concerned with recognizing another person's perspective and feelings, the latter is the capacity to respond with appropriate emotion.

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).

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".

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

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Of the maximum score of 80 from the EQ questionnaire, women scored an average of 50 points, compared to 41 for men.

Only participants who were primarily of European ancestry were selected for the analysis. Conversely there was no apparent genetic basis to sex-based difference in empathy. "It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90%", said Varun Warrier, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge who co-led the study.

Co-author Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, said the findings could help explain why those with autism may lack "cognitive empathy" - the ability to recognise others' feelings. 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. Also, while there were genetic differences, they were not able to find a specific "empathy gene" that would be responsible for the differences. Though the analysis "revealed no significant difference between the heritability in the males-only and the females-only datasets", causes of the sex difference may include non-genetic biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialization. A genome-wide association stud (GWAS) led by scientists at the University of Cambridge, U.K., found that about 10% of variability in self-reported empathy is associated with genetic factors.

Genes involved with problem solving were found to play a role in nerve signals passing from one place to another in the brain.

"The next step is to study an even larger number of people, to replicate these findings, and to pinpoint the biological pathways associated with individual differences in empathy", Dr. Bourgeron notes.

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