Perspective-taking is one of the dimensions of empathic traits and refers to the ability to understand a situation from another person’s mental state like— their beliefs, desires, and intentions. While disease-specific empathic deficits have been linked to several psychiatric conditions, recent research has also established a considerable variability of empathic dispositions in healthy subjects.
One of the most frequently used psychological tests of such empathic dispositions is Davis’ Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), a well-known and respected self-report to measure cognitive and affective empathy aspects. In this study, researchers analyzed associations of a common polymorphism of the GNAS gene (C393T/rs7121) with four dimensions of empathic traits (perspective taking, fantasy, empathic concern, and personal distress) using IRI. The participants were a previously characterized sample of 421 healthy blood donors (231 Males, 190 Females; age 18–74). Results showed that none of the IRI scores was near to being significantly associated with rs7121 genotype for men alone. However, genotype was significantly associated with cognitive empathy and perspective-taking in females. In addition, the association of genotype with perspective-taking in the female remained significant after adjustment for multiple comparisons. Median scores of perspective-taking decreased for samples with TT genotype compared to C-allele carriers. The C allele of rs7121, which had been identified as a risk factor in several medical conditions such as hypertension, obesity and diabetes, was associated with higher cognitive empathy in this study. If you would like to know more about this research, you can read the study here:
Traditionally, much of the research on inherent biological differences between females and males has focused on hormonal regulation, not genetics. For example, one ground-breaking study on perspective-taking found that men perform comparably to women after being administered intranasal oxytocin. Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone.” It plays an important role in managing labor, birth, and lactation as well as regulating both male and female reproductive systems.
However, genetic and epigenetic effects also regulate the brain functions that influence empathetic traits like perspective-taking ability. A study by researchers from the University of Cambridge found that women around the world, regardless of culture or family traditions, showed greater cognitive empathy than men. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective — what they are thinking or feeling — and predict their future actions on the basis of those feelings. Emotional empathy refers to responding with the appropriate emotional reaction when another person shares their feelings. The Cambridge study tested both cognitive and emotional empathy among nearly 306,000 people in 57 countries. Women scored significantly higher in cognitive empathy than men did overall.
There was not a single country in which men scored higher than women. While the reasons for the differences in cognitive empathy are not conclusive, this and earlier studies point to genetic as well as social factors. Another study published by Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology focused on how individuals react within their communities. Researchers questioned whether social differences were directly due to genetics or if aspects of personality and socialization were solely responsible. Findings revealed that at least some genetic factors were at play. Social strategies, such as perspective-taking actions and empathy, are not solely influenced by socialization but also by genetics and individual personality.
If you have difficulty seeing another person’s point of view or feeling genuine empathy, it may not be entirely your fault. You may not have had these skills modeled to you, or maybe you missed out on the empathy genes.
Fortunately, you can develop these skills regardless of your genetics. In fact, learning how to practice cognitive empathy might be even more important for those without a genetic head start. The most impactful lesson in empathy may be to remember that the goal is simply to understand the other person’s point of view, not to fix their problem. This is easier when you don’t assume you already understand everything and you let go of your own judgments of how a person should feel or react in certain situations. Also, don’t give in to the temptation to turn the focus on yourself. Successfully taking another perspective requires that you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see a situation the way they see it.
Perspective-taking ability is only one of many traits you can learn about when you upload your raw DNA data to Genomelink. Learning about your unique genetic makeup is a powerful way to understand yourself better. When you learn how your DNA influences important aspects of your health or personality, you’ll be better prepared to make any changes needed to meet your personal growth goals. Missing the “empathy gene” isn’t an excuse to behave badly toward others, but it can lead to a deeper appreciation of your own strengths.
Are you interested in learning more about your genetic tendency for Perspective-Taking? You can log in to your Genomelink TRAITS to see this new genetic trait.