Genes Can't Explain Why Men Are Less Empathetic Than Women

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For women who think that men just don't seem to understand, well, you're right: Men really are less empathetic than women, and a new study from England offers clues about why this might be the case.

Empathy is the ability to recognize and relate to what’s going on in another person’s mind, but scientists still know very little about what makes some people more attuned to someone else’s feelings than others.

In the new study, published yesterday (March 11) in the journal Translational Psychiatry, the researchers turned to genetics for an answer. To do so, they combed through data on nearly 47,000 people who had used 23andMe, an at-home DNA testing kit, for links between how well they performed on an empathy test and genetic variatons. (23andMe's research team was involved with the study.) [10 Things You Didn't Know About You]

The researchers found that, although women scored, on average, 10 points higher in the "Emotional Quotient" (EQ) test than men, there doesn’t appear to be a genetic basis for those differences, said lead study author Varun Warrier, a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge in England.

"Genetically, [men and women] seem identical, but there is a difference in the empathy score, which is quite significant," Warrier told Live Science. "The [highest possible] score in the EQ test is 80. We saw that men score, on average, 40, and women score, on average, 50."

The 60 questions that made up the EQ test focused on various aspects of empathy, including cognitive empathy (the ability to understand others’ states of mind) and affective empathy (the ability to react appropriately to others).The former is known to be impaired, for example, in people with autism.

In the study, the researchers looked for variations in a single building block of DNA, the nucleotide. These variations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, are the most common type of genetic variation. An example of an SNP would be the nucleotide cytosine (C) randomly replaced with the nucleotide thymine (T) in a certain stretch of DNA, Warrier explained.

"We looked at about 10 million of these variations in the genome," said Warrier. "Then, we ran statistical analysis to see if any of these variations were associated with" how people scored on the empathy test.

Overall, the researchers found that about 11 percent of the differences in empathy levels in the study population can be explained by the SNP genetic variations — in other words, these variations account for about 10 percent of how empathetic you are — but these variations couldn't explain the difference between the sexes in the study.

With genetics out of the equation, it's not clear why men have less empathy than women do, Warrier said.

"We know that there are strong social factors that shape how empathetic we are or how we perceive ourselves to be empathetic," Warrier said, adding that traditionally, society has higher expectations of female children to be understanding of others' feelings. However, non-genetic biological factors could also play a role.

"Biologically, there are differences between men and women — things like hormones and hormone levels," he said. "It could be possible that some of these hormones that are present in greater levels in women can drive some of the higher empathetic scores."

Oxytocin, which is found in higher levels in women, can make people more empathic, while testosterone, present in higher concentrations in men, could do the opposite, Warrier said.

He also noted that the current study only looked at the contribution of SNPs, but there are other types of genetic variations that could also play a role, and more research is needed. Previous studies on identical twins, for example, suggest that genes account for about 30 percent of a person's overall empathy.

Originally published on Live Science.

Tereza Pultarova
Live Science Contributor
Tereza is a London-based science and technology journalist, video producer and health blogger. Originally from Prague, the Czech Republic, she spent the first seven years of her career working as a reporter, script-writer and presenter for various TV programmes of the Czech national TV station. She later took a career break to pursue further education and added a Master in Science from the International Space University, France, to her Bachelor's degree in Journalism from Prague's Charles University. She is passionate about nutrition, meditation and psychology, and sustainability.