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How heritable is empathy? Differential effects of measurement and subcomponents

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. Because items of the RTMITE are coded dichotomous and are not continuously distributed, we computed a sum score of all items for the behavior genetic model and corrected genetic and environmental influences for the reliability of the full score (see also Jang et al. (1998)).

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Acknowledgments

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).

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Correspondence to Martin Melchers.

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Melchers, M., Montag, C., Reuter, M. et al. How heritable is empathy? Differential effects of measurement and subcomponents. Motiv Emot 40, 720–730 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-016-9573-7

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Keywords

  • Behavioral genetics
  • Cognitive empathy
  • Affective empathy
  • Twin study
  • Comparison of measures