Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 40, Issue 5, pp 720–730 | Cite as

How heritable is empathy? Differential effects of measurement and subcomponents

  • Martin MelchersEmail author
  • Christian Montag
  • Martin Reuter
  • Frank M. Spinath
  • Elisabeth Hahn
Original Paper


Empathy is an important psychological concept influencing social interaction. However, knowledge about its etiological components is still scarce. Estimates for the heritability of empathy range between 0 and 70 % depending on the sample, method of measurement, and level of aggregation. In this study, we investigated the heritability of empathy using an extended twin design. We employed the self-report questionnaire Interpersonal Reactivity Index and an emotion recognition task (Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test). N = 742 twins and non-twin siblings were investigated. For affective empathy and the behavioral paradigm, we found heritability estimates between 52 and 57 %. For cognitive empathy, genetic variance was smaller (27 %), indicating that the heritability of empathy depends on the measured subcomponent, which could be relevant for intervention programs like empathy or compassion trainings. Environmental influences on empathy are mainly effects of non-shared environment, which is an important finding for our understanding of the development of empathy.


Behavioral genetics Cognitive empathy Affective empathy Twin study Comparison of measures 



The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Preparation of this manuscript was supported by Grant 00-01/12 from the Daimler Benz Foundation and by Grant MO-2363/3-2 from the DFG. The work of Christian Montag is furthermore funded by a Heisenberg Grant of the DFG (MO-2363/3-1).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Martin Melchers
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Christian Montag
    • 3
    • 4
  • Martin Reuter
    • 1
    • 2
    • 5
  • Frank M. Spinath
    • 6
  • Elisabeth Hahn
    • 6
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of BonnBonnGermany
  2. 2.Laboratory of NeurogeneticsUniversity of BonnBonnGermany
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of UlmUlmGermany
  4. 4.Key Laboratory for NeuroInformation/Center for Information in Medicine, School of Life Science and TechnologyUniversity of Electronic Science and Technology of ChinaChengduChina
  5. 5.Center for Economics and Neuroscience (CENs)University of BonnBonnGermany
  6. 6.Department of PsychologySaarland UniversitySaarbrückenGermany

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