If men sometimes seem a little thoughtless, then it’s tempting to blame biology. They were made like that – so it’s not really their fault.
However, the largest ever study looking at the link between empathy and genetics has found nothing in men’s DNA to suggest they should be less caring than women.
In fact, women may show greater empathy simply because of their upbringing, life experience and social differences.
Researchers from the University of Cambridge, working with genetics company 23andMe, used saliva samples from 46,861 men and women to sequence their DNA.
Participants were asked 60 questions, such as how far they agreed with the statements ‘I am quick to spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward or uncomfortable’ and ‘If anyone asked me if I liked their haircut, I would reply truthfully, even if I didn’t like it’.
Their responses were used to find out which genetic variations were linked to empathy.
The results showed 10 per cent of differences in empathy are determined by genes – but there was no link to the participant’s sex.
Women nonetheless scored 50.4 out of 80 in the empathy test, compared with 41.9 for men. This backs up previous research which has found women are more likely than men to copy ‘contagious’ yawns, mirror facial expressions, and simply look at other people’s faces, even as babies.
These signs of empathy had previously been put down to biological differences – but the latest study suggests otherwise.
Lead author Varun Warrier, from the University of Cambridge, said: ‘We have not yet found any genetic evidence to explain a difference in empathy between men and women.
‘It could also be caused by upbringing, the social differences in how boys and girls are brought up and life experience.’
Further research could still find a genetic difference between the sexes, while male and female hormones may also play a role.
The Cambridge study will, however, prove more enlightening for autism researchers, as it also found that genetic variants linked with lower empathy are associated with a higher risk of autism.
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.
The study, also involving the Pasteur Institute in France, appears in Translational Psychiatry.