The Developmental Origins of a Disposition Toward Empathy: Genetic and Environmental Contributions

Psychology Department, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mount Scopus, Jerusalem, Israel.
Emotion (Impact Factor: 3.88). 01/2009; 8(6):737-52. DOI: 10.1037/a0014179
Source: PubMed


The authors investigated the development of a disposition toward empathy and its genetic and environmental origins. Young twins' (N = 409 pairs) cognitive (hypothesis testing) and affective (empathic concern) empathy and prosocial behavior in response to simulated pain by mothers and examiners were observed at multiple time points. Children's mean level of empathy and prosociality increased from 14 to 36 months. Positive concurrent and longitudinal correlations indicated that empathy was a relatively stable disposition, generalizing across ages, across its affective and cognitive components, and across mother and examiner. Multivariate genetic analyses showed that genetic effects increased, and that shared environmental effects decreased, with age. Genetic effects contributed to both change and continuity in children's empathy, whereas shared environmental effects contributed to stability and nonshared environmental effects contributed to change. Empathy was associated with prosocial behavior, and this relationship was mainly due to environmental effects.

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    • "Twin studies showed that empathic traits are highly heritable, with a heritability of up to 67% for perspective taking and 34–47% for empathic response (Hughes and Cutting, 1999; Knafo et al., 2008), implying that individual differences in empathic components are strongly influenced by individuals' genetic expression. Although previous studies have demonstrated the contribution of genes such as the oxytocin receptor gene and the dopamine beta-hydroxylase gene to individual differences in empathy (Rodrigues et al., 2009; Wu et al., 2012; Gong et al., 2014), most of the genes involved in empathic traits are still under-investigated. "
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    ABSTRACT: Previous studies have indicated that empathic traits, such as perspective taking, are associated with the levels of serotonin in the brain and with autism spectrum conditions. Inspired by the finding that the serotonin receptor 2A gene (HTR2A) modulates the availability of serotonin, this study investigated to what extent HTR2A modulates individuals' perspective taking ability and autistic-like traits. To examine the associations of the functional HTR2A polymorphism T102C (rs6313) with individuals' perspective taking abilities and autistic-like traits, we differentiated individuals according to this polymorphism and measured empathic and autistic-like traits with Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) and Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ) scale in 523 Chinese people. The results indicated that this polymorphism was significantly associated with the scores on Perspective Taking and Personal Distress subscales of IRI, and Communication subscale of AQ. Individuals with a greater number of the C alleles were less likely to spontaneously adopt the point of view of others, more likely to be anxious when observing the pain endured by others, and more likely to have communication problems. Moreover, the genotype effect on communication problems was mediated by individuals' perspective taking ability. These findings provide evidence that the HTR2A T102C polymorphism is a predictor of individual differences in empathic and autistic-like traits and highlight the role of the gene in the connection between perspective taking and autistic-like traits.
    Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 11/2015; 9. DOI:10.3389/fnhum.2015.00575 · 3.63 Impact Factor
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    • "Just as WM for general visual objects (e.g., colors) has been linked to general cognitive abilities such as intelligence, we hypothesized that WM capacities that are specific to BM would correlate with social functioning. We focused on the correlation between WM of BM and empathy, an essential aspect of normal social functioning, which has been extensively studied in the last decades from developmental, social, clinical, and neuroscience perspectives (e.g., Baron-Cohen & Wheelwright, 2004; Batson et al., 1997; Blakemore, 2008; Decety & Jackson, 2004; Knafo et al., 2008; Shamay-Tsoory, 2011). Empathy, broadly defined, refers to the cognitive as well as the emotional reactions of an individual to the observed experiences of other individuals (Shamay-Tsoory, 2011). "
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    ABSTRACT: Working memory (WM) and empathy are core issues in cognitive and social science, respectively. However, no study so far has explored the relationship between these two constructs. Considering that empathy takes place based on the others' observed experiences, which requires extracting the observed dynamic scene into WM and forming a coherent representation, we hypothesized that a sub-type of WM capacity, i.e., WM for biological movements (BM), should predict one's empathy level. Therefore, WM capacity was measured for three distinct types of stimuli in a change detection task: BM of human beings (BM; Experiment 1), movements of rectangles (Experiment 2), and static colors (Experiment 3). The first two stimuli were dynamic and shared one WM buffer which differed from the WM buffer for colors; yet only the BM conveyed social information. We found that BM-WM capacity was positively correlated with both cognitive and emotional empathy, with no such correlations for WM capacity of movements of rectangles or of colors. Thus, the current study is the first to provide evidence linking a specific buffer of WM and empathy, and highlights the necessity for considering different WM capacities in future social and clinical research.
    Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 07/2015; DOI:10.3758/s13423-015-0896-2 · 2.99 Impact Factor
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    • "These abilities in turn allow children to later establish and maintain social relationships. Nevertheless, there are individual differences with regards to the mechanisms that moderate children's social navigation and there is variability in children's responsiveness to others' feelings and desires (Dunn et al., 1991; Eisenberg et al., 1996; Rothbart et al., 2000; Knafo et al., 2008; Salley et al., 2013). A central challenge to measuring the underlying processes of behavior is that these processes are often either internal or partially based on expressive emotions that occur briefly and rapidly in succession. "
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    ABSTRACT: A central challenge of investigating the underlying mechanisms of and the individual differences in young children's behavior is the measurement of the internal physiological mechanism and the involved expressive emotions. Here, we illustrate two paradigms that assess concurrent indicators of both children's social perception as well as their emotional expression. In one set of studies, children view situations while their eye movements are mapped onto a live scene. In these studies, children's internal arousal is measured via changes in their pupil dilation by using eye tracking technology. In another set of studies, we measured children's emotional expression via changes in their upper-body posture by using depth sensor imaging technology. Together, these paradigms can provide new insights into the internal mechanism and outward emotional expression involved in young children's behavior.
    Frontiers in Psychology 07/2015; 6:858. DOI:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00858 · 2.80 Impact Factor
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