Empathy and Your Genes

Kayla Horvath

face-985968_1920Empathy, simply put, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. It is an important human trait that allows us to experience deeper connections with those close to us and to be more successful as individuals. Empathy increases kindness and altruistic behavior, making society a better place in general. But where does this skill come from? Is it determined by our genes or is it determined by our environment? This comes back to the age-old nature vs. nurture debate. In a recent study, Martin Melchers of the University of Bonn and Elisabeth Hahn of Saarland University tried to determine to what extent empathy is genetically determined and to what extent it is a learned behavior.

In contrast with other studies that have tried to answer this same question, Melchers and Hahn used a behavioral empathy test in addition to self-report surveys. This methodology reduced the error of relying on the participants’ perception of their own empathy levels. Empathy is not an easy trait to measure with a ruler or a scale. It is hard to measure because it is hard to pin down and define. For this reason, they split empathy into two sub-sections. Affective empathy is the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings and reasoning. The study’s sample was made up of identical twins, fraternal twins, and sibling pairs. They compared the identical twins’ results with those of the other two groups to try and establish the importance of genetic makeup. The study was comprised of a self-reported survey and a test that measures one’s ability to recognize emotions based on facial expressions. While this study did not examine age or gender as possible confounding variables, it does provide solid data for further investigation.

Melchers and Hahn found that affective empathy is just over fifty percent heritable, with cognitive empathy being only about twenty-seven percent heritable. These findings mean that while some people are more predisposed to be empathetic, empathy is still a skill that everyone can work to improve. The research also shows that empathy is another skill learned at home and in school that has lasting effects on children and on society.

In today’s world, with online communication becoming increasingly common, what happens to empathy? Can empathy be expressed on Facebook via the relatively new “reactions” feature? I would contend that neither the person “loving” a picture nor the person whose picture is being “loved” feels as appreciated or understood as they would if the reaction to the picture were shared in person. I think that as we rely on digital communications more and more, we need to be cautious as to not lose the opportunity to listen to others’ feelings expressed in their own words instead of in emojis.

For more information about the empathy study, click here.

For more information about facebook reactions and empathy, click here.

Editor: Rachel Levy