How heritable is empathy? Differential effects of measurement and subcomponents
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.
KeywordsBehavioral 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.
- Arbuckle, J. L. (2006). Amos (Version 7.0) [Computer Program]. Chicago: SPSS.Google Scholar
- Baron-Cohen, S. (2009). Frauen denken anders. Männer auch. Wie das Geschlecht ins Gehirn kommt. München: Heyne.Google Scholar
- Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test revised version: A study with normal adults, and adults with Asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 42(2), 241–251.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
- Batson, C. D. (1991). The altruism question: Toward a social–psychological answer. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
- Davis, M. H. (1980). A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy. JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.Google Scholar
- Enzmann, D. (1996). Gestreßt, erschöpft oder ausgebrannt? Einflüsse von Arbeitssituationen, Empathie und Coping auf den Burnoutprozeß. München: Profil.Google Scholar
- Franić, S., Dolan, C. V., Borsboom, D., & Boomsma, D. I. (2012). Structural equation modeling in genetics. In H. R. Hoyle (Ed.), Handbook of structural equation modeling (pp. 617–635). New York: The Guilford Press.Google Scholar
- Goleman, D. (2001). An EI-based theory of performance. In C. Cherniss & D. Goleman (Eds.), The emotionally intelligent workplace: How to select for, measure, and improve emotional intelligence in individuals, groups, and organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
- Johnson, A. M., Vernon, P. A., & Feiler, A. R. (2008). Behavioral genetic studies of personality: An introduction and review of the results of 50 years of research. In G. J. Boyle, G. Matthews, & D. H. Saklofske (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of personality theory and assessment: Volume 1 personality theories and models. London: SAGE.Google Scholar
- Koch, G. (1982). Intraclass correlation coefficient. In S. Kotz & N. L. Johnson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of statistical sciences (pp. 213–217). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
- Light, S., & Zahn-Waxler, C. (2011). Nature and forms of empathy in the first years of life. In J. Decety (Ed.), Empathy from Bench to Bedside (pp. 109–130). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
- Oniszczenko, W., Angleitner, A., Strelau, J. & Angert, T. (1993). The questionnaire of twins’ physical resemblance. Unpublished report. Department of Psychology, University of Warsaw, Poland.Google Scholar
- Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., McClearn, G. E., & McGuffin, P. (2008). Behavioral genetics (5th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.Google Scholar
- Plomin, R., DeFries, J. C., Knopik, V. S., & Neiderhiser, J. M. (2012). Behavioral genetics (6th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.Google Scholar
- Vandeleur, C. L., Perrez, M., & Schoebi, D. (2007). Associations between measures of emotion and familial dynamics in normative families with adolescents. Swiss Journal of Psychology/Schweizerische Zeitschrift für Psychologie/Revue Suisse de Psychologie, 66(1), 5–16.Google Scholar