What do we (not) know about the genetics of empathy

Lior Abramson, Florina Uzefovsky, Ariel Knafo-Noam

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Individual differences in empathy are evolutionarily adaptive and thus are expected to relate to genetic individual variation. In this chapter we review the current literature on genetic variation related to empathy, focusing specifically on findings from twin and genetic association studies. This literature shows that empathy is related to genetic variation across individuals, but also that this relationship varies through development and is specific to different aspects of empathy (ie, cognitive and emotional). It also shows that theoretically meaningful biological systems (ie, systems of oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, and endorphins) account for the genetic variability of empathy by affecting attention, reactivity, motivation, and regulation processes directed toward social stimuli. Finally, we present some of the challenges and the directions the field is heading toward, emphasizing the need for direct comparisons between different empathy components and between genes from multiple biological systems. Such an approach should help in unfolding the complexity of empathy as part of the social mind.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe social brain: A developmental perspective
EditorsJ. Decety
PublisherThe MIT Press
StatePublished - 2020


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