In this divided world, there is a growing interest in cultivating empathy—in populations ranging from preschoolers to police officers. And for good reason: Studies suggest that, besides increasing kind and helpful behavior and making the world a better place to live, empathy contributes to our relationships and career success.
But where does empathy come from? Is it mostly taught by parents, teachers, and community? Or is it an innate personality trait determined by genetics?
A recent study, conducted by Martin Melchers of the University of Bonn, Elisabeth Hahn of Saarland University, and colleagues and published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, sought to answer these questions. By using multiple ways of measuring empathy in 742 twins and adult siblings, the study provides some new insights into empathy’s origins.
Previous studies on this subject have had mixed results, with estimates for the heritability of empathy ranging from 0 to 70 percent, depending on the participants who were included and the methods used. If a trait is 0 percent heritable, that means that differences in that trait are due solely to environmental differences—the influence of so-called “nurture.” If a trait is 100 percent heritable, that means that all differences observed in that trait across a population can be attributed to genetic variation.
Observational studies of veryyoungchildren found low estimates of heritability, and these estimates varied depending on the children’s ages. Studiesinadults, which have mostly relied on participants reporting their own empathy levels, have produced similarly disparate results, with estimates of the heritability of empathy ranging from 28 to 72 percent.
The study by Melcher, Hahn, and colleagues was the first to address the concern that participants don’t rate their own empathy accurately, by combining self-report surveys with the results from a behavioral empathy test. Specifically, the researchers looked at the heritability of two different subcomponents of empathy: affective empathy, or a person’s ability to feel what someone else is feeling, and cognitive empathy, or a person’s ability to understand another person’s feelings and reasoning.
To do this, Melchers and colleagues compared the similarity in empathy levels between identical twin pairs, who are virtually genetically identical, to the similarity between fraternal twins and other sibling pairs, who are expected to share about half of their genetic background. This way, the researchers were able to determine the extent to which individual differences in empathy are likely due to inherited genetic factors rather than environmental ones.
To quantify the participants’ affective and cognitive empathy levels, the researchers asked them to answer a questionnaire and take the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, which measures the ability to recognize emotions from faces. Based on the results of these tests, Melcher and colleagues estimate that affective empathy is between 52-57 percent heritable, whereas cognitive empathy is less determined by genetics—about 27 percent heritable, presumably influenced more by environment and learning experiences.
These results are relevant to empathy training programs, the authors note, such as those offered to people with autism, to patients with conduct problems, and to prevent bullying in schools.
“These trainings often try to enhance participants’ ability for perspective taking, following the idea that better abilities in this domain may lead to empathic concern/affective empathy,” write the researchers. Yet differences in the success of this training might be due in part to the heritability of affective empathy, they note—as some people may be more genetically hardwired to feel the emotions of others before even starting such a program.
There are some limitations to this study. For one, it doesn’t tell us about the role of gender in the heritability of empathy. Past studies have found evidence of gender differences, including differences in the neural networks activated by empathy. Another unknown is how exactly measurements of the heritability of empathy might be affected by age—previous studies have found that the heritability of other traits, such as cognitive ability, shows up more strongly in older people. Future studies that measure the heritability of empathy across development might help answer these open questions.
Greater Good wants to know: Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?
*Primary author is Rebecca Noble
It’s a typical scene in a preschool classroom: Charlie and Lucy are each happily playing with their own toys when Lucy suddenly eyes Charlie’s toy and wants it, and she wants it NOW. Charlie, sees Lucy’s desire for his toy, doesn't get possessive but kindly extends it to her. Lucy snatches the toy, declaring “Mine!”, and runs off across the classroom to show her new toy off to her other friends. Charlie doesn't mind.
In this scene, Charlie displayed what psychologists call prosocial behavior. That is, behavior characterized by concern for, and intention to help, others. Lucy, on the other hand, demonstrated selfish behavior. Why is it that Charlie was able to consider what Lucy wanted and shared, but Lucy thought only of herself? Was it because of the way the two were raised? Alternatively, was there some kind of genetic factor that made Charlie inherently generous and Lucy naturally greedy? As it turns out, the development of prosocial behavior is a matter of both nature and nurture; genes andparenting (Saturn 2014).
Nature and nurture are not in opposition. To the contrary, they work together--constantly. One of the ways nature and nurture are linked is through a hormone called oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a peptide with a wide array of targets throughout the body. It is most well-known for its role in child birth and milk ejection feedback loops, but recent studies reveal the importance of this hormone in the regulation of social behaviors (Donaldson & Young 2008). In humans, natural oxytocin levels are related to feelings of love and trust in intimate relationships both between parent and child and between romantic partners. Furthermore, oxytocin levels are related to empathy and subsequent generosity toward strangers. And, when oxytocin is administered intra-nasally in human subjects, researchers usually observe an increase in generosity, trust, eye gaze, and the ability to infer the emotions of others (Saturn 2014).
The NATURE side
The reason why Lucy and Charlie responded differently in the situation above can be explained in part by genetics. While both Lucy and Charlie have oxytocin circulating in their bodies, they may have different forms of the receptor specific to this hormone. Researchers studying the gene for the oxytocin receptor have identified three different forms, called polymorphisms: AA, AG, and GG. Furthermore, they have demonstrated that the genetic variation between these polymorphisms influences prosociality. Both males and females with the GG polymorphism had significantly higher dispositional empathy and empathic accuracy compared to those with the AA or AG polymorphism (Rodriques et al. 2009).
The NURTURE side
So, if scientific research has identified a gene that can influence our empathy, does that mean Lucy (and her parents) are off the hook for her greedy behaviors? Not quite…
Genetic variability in the oxytocin system may contribute to individual differences in social behavior, but it is by no means the whole story. This genetic variation, is instead, better described as a genetic predisposition—a tendency toward a particular type of behavior whose expression is influenced by the individual’s experience. That is, the environment shapes how genes are expressed (or not).
This is where the influence of parenting comes in according to Dr. Sarina Saturn. Research has shown that parental bonds also significantly influence development of prosocial behavior. Parental affection towards, and soothing and understanding of, children is correlated with an increase in affection given and received, gratitude, altruism, trust, love, interpersonal support, self-compassion, humor, happiness, and satisfaction with life plus better sleep quality and health (Saturn 2014).
But what does this have to do with oxytocin? Well, oxytocin plays a key role in child-parent bonds. When fathers are given oxytocin it induces the release of natural oxytocin in their infants (Weismann et al. 2012). But behavior matters. Affectionate touch of and play with their children trigger oxytocin release in parents, activating brain circuits devoted to caregiving (Feldman 2012). The intimate bonds and activities of parental care increase oxytocin. And oxytocin can, in turn, increase prosocial behaviors.
The truth is that we are not slaves to our genes. Whether children are generous like Charlie or struggle with sharing like Lucy, is a function of BOTH genetic factors such as their particular oxytocin receptor polymorphism AND the nature of their relationship with their parents. It is a constant but changing interaction.
The best bet for increasing prosocial behavior among the human population? Affectionate touch and interactive physical play. These cultivate the hormones that lead to compassionate and altruistic acts. You can build strong social bonds with loved ones and strangers alike. Given the nature of oxytocin, you will find that being good to others is also good for you!
SERIES ON CHILD FLOURISHING*
1. Kindness in Kids and the Nature-Nurture Debate (Dr. Sarina Saturn)
2. Why Synchronize and Bond With Your Children (Dr. Ruth Feldman)
3. “I want it—now!” How Children Learn Self-Control (Dr. Julie Braungart-Rieker)
4. Why Kids Should Be Protected from Toxic Stress (Dr. Bruce Perry)
5. “Mr. Mom” The Old Normal (Dr. Lee Gettler)
6. Why Dad’s “Talk” is Important (Dr. Holly Brophy-Herb)
7. Conflict in the Family: Why Mom and Dad Should Say “Sorry” (Dr. Mark Cummings)
8. Domination or Partnership? How Does Your Family Stack Up? (Dr. Riane Eisler)
9. Why Carefully Invest Daily in a Child (Dr. Robin Nelson)
*Posts are based on talks presented at the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.
What is Child Flourishing?
Happiness and Growth through Play
Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist
How to Grow a Smart Baby
Donaldson, Z. R., & Young, L. J. (2008). Oxytocin, vasopressin, and the neurogenetics of sociality. Science, 322(5903), 900-904.
Feldman, R. (2012). Oxytocin and social affiliation in humans. Hormones and behavior, 61(3), 380-391.
Rodrigues, S. M., Saslow, L. R., Garcia, N., John, O. P., & Keltner, D. (2009). Oxytocin receptor genetic variation relates to empathy and stress reactivity in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(50), 21437-21441.
Saturn, S. (September, 2014). Nature and Nature: Genetic and Parental Contributions to Social and Emotional Traits. Paper presented at the Pathways to Child Flourishing conference, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN.
Weisman, O., Zagoory-Sharon, O., & Feldman, R. (2012). Oxytocin administration to parent enhances infant physiological and behavioral readiness for social engagement. Biological psychiatry, 72(12), 982-989.
POSTS ON PARENTING ISSUES AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT:
INFANT SLEEP AND SLEEP TRAINING:
6 Hidden Myths Behind Baby Sleep Training Advocacy
Child Sleep Training’s “Best Review of Research”
Parents Misled by Cry-It-Out Sleep Training Reports
REBUTTAL to critique of "Parents Misled by...Sleep Training Reports"
Dangers of "Crying it Out"
Baby Sleep Training: Mistakes “Experts” and Parents Make
'Let Crying Babes Lie'? So Wrong
Simple Ways to Calm a Crying Baby
Normal, Human Infant Sleep: Feeding Method and Development
Normal Infant Sleep: Changing Patterns
Normal Parent Behaviors and Why They Won’t Hurt Your Child
Normal Infant Sleep: Night Nursing's Importance
More Normal Parenting for Sleep
Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep
Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep-Tiredness?
Understanding and Helping Toddler Sleep--Preparing Success
SIDS: Risks and Realities
Bed Sharing With Babies: What is the Hype About?
Bedsharing or Co-Sleeping Can Save Babies' Lives
New Moms Need Social Support
Painkillers for Childbirth? The Few Pros and Many Cons
What's the Use of Midwives and Doulas?
Jesus Had a Home Birth
What if Jesus Had Been Born in the USA?
Why Continue to Harm Boys from Ignorance of Male Anatomy?
What Is the Greatest Danger for an Uncircumcised Boy?
Circumcision Ethics and Economics
Circumcision: Social, Sexual, Psychological Realities
More Circumcision Myths You May Believe: Hygiene and STDs
Myths about Circumcision You Likely Believe
Stand Up For Breastfeeding
Talk About Breastfeeding With Your Family, Friends and Doctor
Breastmilk Wipes Out Formula: Responses to Critical Comments
In Light of Last Week's Posts: Is Pushing* Formula Evil?
The REAL Truth about Breastfeeding
5 Things You Thought You Knew about Breastfeeding
The TREMENDOUS Benefits of Doing What is Normal: Breastfeeding
Myths you probably believe about infant formula
Your assumptions about infant formula are probably wrong
It’s Breastfeeding Week: Why should you care?
Research on Spanking: It's Bad for ALL Kids
What Happened to Ethics in Pediatric Medicine?
Baby-, Parent- or Life-Centered Parenting?
Ten Ways to Truly Respect Motherhood
Slings and Heroes
Parents Should Know the Limitations of Science Experiments
Babies "don’t cry in Africa," why should they cry in the USA?
Blame the baby or blame the experts?
Dumb Parent(ing), Dumberer Child
How to Grow a Smart Baby
Are you treating your child like a prisoner?
Undercare: The bane of American life?
Promoting Thriving in School-Aged Children: A Checklist
Is it good to make kids afraid?
How NOT to Ruin a Child
Are you or your child on a (touch) starvation diet?
Mother’s touch of dead baby causes “miracle”
What Does Good Parenting Look Like? You Decide.
Are You a “Childist?" Test Yourself
Babies Are Needy—Does That Bug You?
Do We Need Declaration for the Rights of the Baby?
Where Are the Happy Babies?
The Decline of Children and the Moral Sense
Believing "children are resilient" may be a fantasy
How America Morally Fails its Children: What Needs to Change
Increase the well-being of children around you
NOTE on BASIC ASSUMPTIONS:
When I write about human nature, I use the 99% of human genus history as a baseline. That is the context of small-band hunter-gatherers. These are “immediate-return” societies with few possessions who migrate and forage. They have no hierarchy or coercion and value generosity and sharing. They exhibit both high autonomy and high commitment to the group. They have high social wellbeing. See comparison between dominant Western culture and this evolved heritage in my article (you can download from my website):
Narvaez, D. (2013). The 99 Percent—Development and socialization within an evolutionary context: Growing up to become “A good and useful human being.” In D. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace and Human Nature: The convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 643-672). New York: Oxford University Press.
When I write about parenting, I assume the importance of the evolved developmental niche (EDN) for raising human infants (which initially arose over 30 million years ago with the emergence of the social mammals and has been slightly altered among human groups based on anthropological research).
The EDN is the baseline I use for determining what fosters optimal human health, wellbeing and compassionate morality. The niche includes at least the following: infant-initiated breastfeeding for several years, nearly constant touch early, responsiveness to needs so the young child does not get distressed, playful companionship with multi-aged playmates, multiple adult caregivers, positive social support, and soothing perinatal experiences.
All EDN characteristics are linked to health in mammalian and human studies (for reviews, see Narvaez, Panksepp, Schore & Gleason, 2013; Narvaez, Valentino, Fuentes, McKenna & Gray, 2014; Narvaez, 2014) Thus, shifts away from the EDN baseline are risky and must be supported with longitudinal data looking at wellbeing in children and adults. My comments and posts stem from these basic assumptions.
My research laboratory has documented the importance of the EDN for child wellbeing and moral development with more papers in the works see (my Website to download papers):
Narvaez, D., Gleason, T., Wang, L., Brooks, J., Lefever, J., Cheng, A., & Centers for the Prevention of Child Neglect (2013). The Evolved Development Niche: Longitudinal Effects of Caregiving Practices on Early Childhood Psychosocial Development. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 28 (4), 759–773. Doi: 10.1016/j.ecresq.2013.07.003
Narvaez, D., Wang, L., Gleason, T., Cheng, A., Lefever, J., & Deng, L. (2013). The Evolved Developmental Niche and sociomoral outcomes in Chinese three-year-olds. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 10(2), 106-127.
Also see these books for selected reviews:
Evolution, Early Experience and Human Development (Oxford University Press)
Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution (Oxford University Press)
Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture and Wisdom (W.W. Norton)