Good or Bad to the Bone? How Human Genetics Affect Empathy

Meet Sally and Ann. Sally has a basket. Ann has a box. Sally puts a marble inside her basket and goes outside to play (where she can no longer see her basket). While Sally is away, Ann takes the marble out of Sally’s basket and puts it inside her box. Sally comes back inside. Where will Sally look for her marble?

“Sally and Ann” is a test given to children who are being tested for autism and other disorders that are characterized by a lack of what psychologists refer to as “theory of mind.” Developing theory of mind, which in very simple terms means understanding that your thoughts are different than someone else’s thoughts, is one of the most important developmental milestones in early childhood cognitive development. It contributes to our ability to get along with other people, empathize, problem solve, and explain and interpret human behavior and interactions. The answer to the Sally and Ann test—that Sally will look for the marble in her basket—may seem obvious to us, but for children who believe that everyone has the very same thoughts in their minds, the answer is that Sally will look in Ann’s box because Ann moved it.

Anecdotally, I think most of us recognize that different people have different levels of empathy and that how much or how little empathy someone has doesn’t always correspond to their upbringing. For example, since I was a toddler my family has called me a “bleeding heart.” Before I was ten, I saved half-eaten moles from playful dogs; handfuls of caterpillars from mean kindergarten boys intent on squishing them; bugs caught in spider webs; friends being bullied. As an adult, I can’t watch sports without cheering for the underdog. I empathize with movie characters to the point of muttering things like, “wow, that is so wonderful for them!” And I always assume when a stranger is rude that they must just be having a really bad day.

In many ways, my empathy development has gone overboard, but my children, both of whom have autism, had to be taught how to empathize by teachers and therapists. The ability to understand that individuals have different thoughts and experiences and then empathize how it would feel to have those thoughts or feelings—theory of mind—did not naturally pass from me to my children. It had to be developed by teachers, like math skills. So where did the breakdown occur?  In nature or via nurture?

Scientists suggest it may be both. Translational Psychology recently published the results of a scientific investigation into the genetic architecture of empathy using a genome-wide association study (GWAS) involving 46,861 participants. According to those running the study,

Empathy is the ability to identify other people’s thoughts, intentions, desires, and feelings, and to respond to others’ mental states with an appropriate emotion. It plays an important role in social interaction by facilitating both making sense of other people’s behavior and in responding appropriately to their behavior. For these reasons, it is considered a key component of prosocial behavior, social cooperation, and social cognition.

In a 2007 Psychological Bulletin paper, psychologists from the University of California, San Diego attributed an individual’s lack of empathy or theory of mind to dysfunctional mirror neurons. “Unlike inanimate objects, humans have the distinct property of being ‘like me’ in the eyes of the observer,” they noted. “This allows us to use the same systems that process knowledge about self-performed actions, self-conceived thoughts, and self-experienced emotions to understand actions, thoughts, and emotions in others.” They went on to propose that internal simulation mechanisms, like mirror neurons, are necessary for the human development of these traits.

Here’s a simple example of how mirror neurons work in most of us. When we see someone yawn, most of us will yawn too, and this action is a result of our mirror neurons working correctly. They give us our ability to imitate others, which is crucial to our cognitive development. Many children with autism, however, do not yawn when they see someone else yawn because their mirror neuron mechanisms are defective; they don’t have the neurological impulse to imitate.

But the Translational Psychology report, published by researchers from Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University, and the genetics company 23andMe, goes a step farther. Scientists have identified a series of genes that directly contribute to a person’s empathy levels, which suggests that empathy is partially biological—and not just the result of a neurological issue. “We identified four significant genetic correlations with the EQ and psychiatric conditions and psychological traits, providing insights into the shared genetic architecture.”

Did you just hear the opening music from Law and Order followed by the defendant saying, “It’s not my fault, my genes made me do it”?

The idea that our ability to empathize with others is contingent on genetics may at first feel disconcerting. Especially when thinking about the implications for ethics, law, social behavior, technology, and several areas of philosophy. But saying that one has more or less of a genetic predilection toward empathy doesn’t mean that one cannot be taught empathy. It just means that not everyone recognizes the Golden Rule as meaningful and that we shouldn’t assume its value is self-evident.

The American Humanist Association’s “Ten Commitments: Guiding Principles for Teaching Values in America’s Public Schools” presents empathy as something teachable. We human beings are capable of empathy, the ability to understand and enter imaginatively into another living being’s feelings—the sad ones and the happy ones as well. Many of the personal relationships we have (in the family, among friends, between diverse individuals, and amid other living things) are made positive through empathy. With discussion and role-playing, we can learn how other people feel when they’re sad or hurt or ignored, as well as when they experience great joys. We can use stories, anecdotes, and classroom events to help us nurture sensitivity to how our actions impact others.

For example, a student, let’s call him Joe, who doesn’t have a very developed theory of mind—and therefore no understanding of empathy—sits down in a classroom with a few other students he doesn’t know. Joe is afraid of the dark. One of the other students, we’ll call him Tom, turns the lights on and off. Joe becomes infuriated and hits Tom. When their teacher later asks Joe why he hit Tom, he says, “because that boy knows I’m afraid of the dark and was doing that on purpose to scare me.” Again, these two boys don’t know each other and haven’t spoken.

Joe can be taught that Tom has different thoughts than him, and because of that, Tom could not have intentionally meant to scare Joe. He can be taught to empathize with Tom’s ignorance of his own fear of the dark, and taught to behave differently when someone does something that accidentally upsets him. What the science is telling us is that the teacher cannot assume Joe naturally understands these things. We cannot assume that human beings are capable of natural empathy. Instead, we must assume that everyone must be taught to empathize through activities and lessons like those mentioned in the Ten Commitments.

Teaching empathetic thinking and behavior still leaves many ethical questions unanswered in light of a genetic predisposition or lack thereof. Would someone who naturally feels empathy be kinder, or more moral, than someone who had to be taught to empathize? Is natural empathy more genuine than instructional empathy? Are those who are genetically predisposed to lower levels of empathy more likely to commit crimes against others? Might they be more likely not to realize their actions are crossing a line and causing someone distress, for example in the case of sexual misconduct? Are they better soldiers? Which genetic constitution would make a better president, doctor, parent, bus driver?

The more we learn about ourselves, the more complicated humanity and our lives become; and the greater our human potential grows. Without understanding our own biological connections to our actions and interactions, we created social norms, ethical expectations, rights and wrongs to help govern and improve our societies. We have definitely made some big mistakes along the way. As we evolve, our understandings of these constructs also change and we work to improve them, to improve ourselves. Obviously there are slippery slopes. With knowledge comes great responsibility. But understanding that a less-empathetic person is not an innately bad person but genetically different pulls back the curtain a little farther on human ethics. It takes away a little bit more of the magic, and gives us the concrete knowledge we need to continue to enable better behavior, both for ourselves and others.