Empathy May Come Down to Our Genetic Makeup

By Emily Murray

In our lives we encounter many types of people. While the differences are likely too many to name, we can lump most into two categories fairly easily – those who are compassionate and those who aren’t. While many of us may think our ability to empathize has more to do with environmental factors, new research has revealed that having (or lacking) empathy may actually be a result of our genetic makeup. Perhaps the most surprising part is that most of us can tell within 20 seconds whether someone has this type of compassion or not simply by observation.

While most of us have been told it’s not polite to judge people right away, a new study finds that in less than a minute it is possible to tell a lot about someone at first glance but it may be surprising to realize that we can actually learn about a person’s genetic makeup this way. Think about some of the first things you notice when you meet someone for the first time. With a simple facial expression, the entire meaning of a sentence can change. We are naturally drawn to those with open body language and welcoming smiles and conversely leery of those with crossed arms, aggressive posture and stern faces.

This new study lead by Aleksandr Kogan from the University of Toronto collected data from 23 couples. He and his colleagues tested their hypothesis by asking 23 different couples to describe a time in their life that was particularly different and caused them to suffer. While other participants listened to these stories, their responses to what they were hearing were videotaped. Participants were then asked to watch these videotaped responses for 20 sounds without sound and then judge if a person was compassionate or not based solely on this snapshot into the way that these people listened. Nine out of 10 times when asked to report who they believed  had the “kindness gene,” they were right proving that sometimes our snap judgments about people are correct.

Researchers attribute this type of response to a slight variation in an oxytocin gene. You may be familiar with oxytocin since it is frequently referred to as the natural love potion-type chemical that attracts us to our mates. It is also associated with bonding mother and child. Additionally, the hormone is also connected with feelings of empathy.  Additionally the gene has been identified as the “G” gene and those who have two copies appear to be more trustworthy and compassionate in the eyes of others.