Social situations reveal pretty quickly which people are just "naturally" better at reading other people's emotions than others. According to a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, this ability to read emotions just by looking at someone's eyes may be influenced by one's genes.
The researchers from the University of Cambridge, UK, managed to pinpoint the genetic variants responsible for this sense of empathy. It was shown to be associated with genetic variants on chromosome 3 in women. This tiny stretch of the chromosome includes the gene LRRN1, which is highly active in the striatum, a part of the brain previously found to be associated with empathy.
Weirdly, though, performance on the test was not associated with this particular area of chromosome 3 in men.
The Cambridge scientists collaborated with an international team of scientists and the genetics company 23andMe to investigate the link between empathy and genes. The study involved results on this test from 89,000 people across the world, the majority of whom came from 23andMe.
"This is the largest ever study of this test of cognitive empathy in the world,” lead author Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student, said in a statement. “This is an important step forward for the field of social neuroscience and adds one more piece to the puzzle of what may cause variation in cognitive empathy."
The team behind the study previously developed a cognitive empathy test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes”. You can try it out for yourself at the bottom of this page.
The test simply examines your social intelligence by seeing how quickly and effectively you can interpret another’s emotional state by looking at their eyes. The team noted that some people are better than others at this ability and that women on average score better than men. Higher scores on the test are also linked to an increase in the volume of the striatum.
Previous studies have found that people with autism and anorexia score lower on this test. The team found that genetic variants that contribute to higher scores on the test also increase the risk for anorexia. However, they don't increase the risk of autism, perhaps because it also involves non-social traits, while the test only measures a social trait.
As a whole, the researchers stressed that it's important to remember that social and cultural factors also play a role.
“This new study demonstrates that empathy is partly genetic, but we should not lose sight of other important social factors such as early upbringing and postnatal experience," added Professor Thomas Bourgeron.