February 10, 2009
Mice Suggest Genetic Basis For Empathy

Empathy probably has a genetic basis.

MADISON — The ability to empathize with others is partially determined by genes, according to new research on mice from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU).

In the study, a highly social strain of mice learned to associate a sound played in a specific cage with something negative simply by hearing a mouse in that cage respond with squeaks of distress. A genetically different mouse strain with fewer social tendencies did not learn any connection between the cues and the other mouse's distress, showing that the ability to identify and act on another's emotions may have a genetic basis. The new research will publish Wednesday, Feb. 11, in the Public Library of Science ONE journal at http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0004387.

Like humans, mice can automatically sense and respond to others' positive and negative emotions, such as excitement, fear or anger. Understanding empathy in mice may lead to important discoveries about the social interaction deficits seen in many human psychosocial disorders, including autism, schizophrenia, depression and addiction, the researchers say. For example, nonverbal social cues are frequently used to identify early signs of autism in very young children.

"The core of empathy is being able to have an emotional experience and share that experience with another," says UW-Madison graduate student Jules Panksepp, who led the work along with undergraduate QiLiang Chen. "We are basically trying to deconstruct empathy into smaller functional units that make it more accessible to biological research."

Here comes a question that is predictable for long time readers (at least those with the right genetic complement): Will people choose to make their genetically engineered offspring more or less empathetic than the average human is now?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2009 February 10 11:10 PM  Brain Genetics

Xenophon Hendrix said at February 11, 2009 3:13 AM:

My guess, based on intuition: more. Being empathetic isn't all sweetness and light. It's also useful in competitive situations. Think high-stakes poker.

Mirco said at February 11, 2009 3:33 PM:

The less intelligent will choose between more or less empathy, the most intelligent will go for empathy associated to self control and restrain to judge immediately.
This will enable the better to not react blindly to an emphatic stimulus. Many leaders and scammers are very good on fooling the empathy of their followers, so they are able to manipulate them.

Too much empathy and the subject is manipulable by people able to forge signals.
Too few empathy and the subjects will be unable to bond and form a society.

A strong empathy urge associated with a stronger ability to delay the reaction is needed to give time to the individuals to evaluate the signal and verify it.

Lono said at February 12, 2009 8:39 AM:

IMHO all the people with a genetic predisposition for low levels of empathy should be lined up and shot!

I have absolutely no tolerance for those kind of people!!


Lou Pagnucco said at February 13, 2009 8:50 AM:

Fascinating question.

My guess is that the empathetic will let chance decide their offsprings' personalities, but that the more dominant, unsympathetic people will prefer to propagate their own traits.

BTW, a recent study showed that social/political dominance was associated with indifference to others.
It seems to explain the world pretty well.

Since a number of good biological correlates of empathy/morality have been discovered, I wonder whether political candidates would voluntarily subject themselves to such a test.

Seems like this subject could be a good movie/novel theme.

Randall Parker said at February 13, 2009 8:37 PM:


That's an interesting take. But what if it gets out to empathetic people that the unempathetic are winning the selective competition and that the world is gradually going to fill up with ruthless and uncaring people? Do you think the empathetic will remain uncaring about the plight of later generations of empathetic people?

Dominance and indifference: I saw that report too and now I can't find it. That's one reason I write posts: So I can find the most interesting reports again. Should have done a post on that one.

Political candidates: We will reach a point where candidate DNA sequences will get posted (by the opposition hiding in anonymity or by people who just think it necessary) on the internet. The trick will be in how to prove that the sequences really are from the candidate.

Xenophon Hendrix said at February 13, 2009 9:41 PM:

I commented on this a couple of days ago, but I suspect my comment mentioned an unmentionable subject and was eaten by your spam filter.

Anyway, I suspect that empathy isn't all sweetness and light. Being able mentally to put oneself in another's place is a powerful tool in sales, negotiation, and the like. For example, certain occupations with cards (that get filtered when mentioned directly) are at their highest ranks filled with people who are both highly rational and empathetic.

If it's engineerable or selectable, I suspect empathy will at least somewhat increase.

Lou Pagnucco said at February 14, 2009 9:26 AM:


It appears to me that people devoid of conscience already dominate politics, media and finance. I believe the chasm between this elite and the rank-and-file is still growing. I doubt there will be any back-reaction - the public has been successfully deluded and gelded. I also expect that any attempt to "out" political psychopaths would be slapped down hard - note the growing worldwide efforts to curtail internet free speech.

When I was in Political Science 101 class we students were subjects in an experiment to determine how personality determined success in the political process. First we were profiled on the Idealist--Machiavellian scale. Then we were matched as teams consisting of Idealists vs. Machiavellians (all double blind to students and administrators) in games that modeled politics, involving voting, negotiation, risk taking, etc., incentivized with small money prizes.
When the results came in, the professor revealed the nature of the experiment, and expressed his amazement that the Machiavellians won every one of over 100 games. He lamented that the upper echelons of politics, and other organizations, might consist almost entirely of Machiavellians.


I hope you are correct, but bet you are wrong.

Xenophon Hendrix said at February 14, 2009 7:13 PM:

What makes you think Machiavellians aren't empathetic? People use the term Machiavellian in various ways, but Machiavelli was interested in how people actually work as opposed to how they say they work or how moralists say they ought to work. A strong sense of empathy is vital for such analysis. One needs to understand greed, fear, hero worship, the longing for glory, etc.

And if you are looking for social dominance, being able to put yourself in another's shoes is highly useful for manipulating them. I'm inclined to doubt that very many Big Men lack empathy.

People seem to confuse empathy with compassion. Look at the mouse experiment in this blog entry, though. It has nothing to do with compassion. They were seeing if one mouse "understood" that the other mouse was in distress. A bad person can use that kind of information to destroy just as easily as a good person can use it to help.

Autistics and psychopaths, two types of person who notably lack empathy, tend to have problems with life. Those who are also smart can make places for themselves, but non-smart autistics end up institutionalized and non-smart psychopaths end up in prison.

Re. psychopaths, from my general reading, the classic psychopath becomes good at feigning emotions and is highly manipulative, but his own emotions tend to be simplistic and self-centered. He believes that everyone else fakes it like he does. This, of course, is a totally inaccurate model of the world, and the psychopath eventually gets himself in lots trouble. One interesting thing I've read about them is that non-incarcerated psychos tend to be smarter than average, because the dumb ones tend to get locked up.

Lou Pagnucco said at February 15, 2009 8:55 AM:


You are correct that are different shadings in the meanings of these terms.

However, I think we are talking about a tightly associated syndrome of psychological traits.

One good paper on the subject is:
"Shedding Light on the Dark Triad of Personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and Psychopathy"

You say "I'm inclined to doubt that very many Big Men lack empathy." - by your definition I'd agree, but not if we use the more prevalent meaning. Recognizing emotion is very different than vicariously experiencing it.

Bob Badour said at February 15, 2009 3:04 PM:


The word "empathy" has several (somewhat contradictory) meanings. I am not sure any of the meanings are more prevalent than any of the others or which is more prevalent if any is. In the context of the article referenced by Randall, empathy means specifically the ability to perceive and interpret the emoting signals of others. This is exactly one kind of empathy where autistics have deficits and where psychopaths have no deficit at all. Switching to some other definition in this context is questionable at best.

I say deficits because unlike some of the rats in the experiment, many autistics, like myself, have the ability to perceive and interpret signals of acute distress. Granted, some autistics do not perceive real dangers, and many self-harm as a result. Even those of us who do perceive gross signals tend not to perceive some of the finer signals that neurotypicals take for granted. In particular, most people have significant non-verbal communication through eye contact and facial expression that autistics either do not perceive at all or lack the neurology to interpret in real-time. This deficit generally leads to not perceiving boredom, annoyance, sincerity, mild anger, amusement, melancholy etc. and to not being able to participate in the non-verbal negotiation for taking turns speaking etc.

Another kind of empathy where autistics have deficits relates to what is called "theory of mind", and basically boils down to the ability to take dual perspective. I was in my 30's before I could take dual perspective at all, and even now it is very much a conscious process for me and not the automatic subconscious process it is for most people. This type of empathy is unrelated to Machiavellians and psychopaths, but might be relevant to some narcissism insofar as narcissists delude themselves about others' perspectives.

Another definition of empathy more-or-less equates to compassion and involves the tendency to feel what others feel or at least to find the emotions of others motivating in some way. This is the kind of empathy psychopaths lack and that most autistics have in spades.

Psychopaths obviously perceive and interpret the nonverbal signals that autistics miss because they are masters at mimicking those nonverbal signals and masters at manipulating others. Even stupid psychopaths have these skills. This is why most people warmly embrace psychopaths finding them very likable while at the same time rejecting autistics finding us repulsive. Among autistics, even those of us who are very good at faking the nonverbals get them wrong enough of the time that people notice our differences.

Contrasting psychopaths with Machiavellians, whereas the psychopath could not care any less about others' emotions beyond how they can manipulate them for self-serving purposes, the Machiavellian might care but tempered by a ruthless cost-benefit analysis. Because narcissists delude themselves, it is harder to say whether they simply delude themselves about the emotional states of others or whether they care to a delusion-distorted extent.

I think parents will select for the ability to perceive and interpret the emotional states of others. The ability has obvious advantages especially for reproductive fitness.

I think parents will also select for the ability to take dual perspective for similar reasons.

It is less clear to me whether parents overall will select for or against the tendency to be moved by other people's emotions. I suspect many parents will select for Machiavellian tendencies, and some psychopaths will even select for psychopathology. However, many parents might select against both Machiavellian tendencies and psychopathology for reasons of morality or religion. I suspect parents will generally select against narcissism. Narcissists will want doting, adoring children--if they want children at all--and not selfish, deluded brats.

Lou Pagnucco said at February 16, 2009 8:03 AM:


Good analysis and summary - human personality is quite multidimensional.

I completely concur with your differentiation between autism and psychopathy. Having met both autistic people and psychopaths, it is clear to me that the latter are the ones that pose a hazard to society. They can recognize others' inner emotional states very well, but do not "resonate" viscerally, and use their deficit as an advantage for exploitation. Unless I misinterpret what you say, high functioning autistic people are capable of learning the visual cues of emotion, but aren't born with the ability, or with a reduced level.

I guess we can never really know what the mice in the experiment experienced in their inner world.

The Darwinian pressures, either societal or parental choice, favoring personality characteristics are also pretty hard to extrapolate. I hope future social scientists monitor the trends.

Bob Badour said at February 16, 2009 8:02 PM:


The short answer is: "Yes, autistics are capable of learning visual cues, but aren't born with the ability, or with a reduced level." The autistic answer is:

Answering about autistics gets complicated because autism is a spectrum disorder. I suspect in the end it will turn out that autism has many different causes each associated with identifiably different neurological differences. Take eye contact for example: Some autistics like myself simply do not perceive the signal when it comes to eye based nonverbals. We don't find eye contact valuable because we don't get anything out of it. Other autistics perceive the signal but lack the neurology for processing the signal. They find eye contact overwhelming like trying to drink from a fire hose. The observed behavior, though, is the same in both cases: we don't make eye contact.

I liken autistic behaviors to the "flu-like symptoms" of neurological difference.

Most people are not even aware of it, but they have a tremendous amount of nonverbal communication through eye contact and body language. Those of us who can make eye contact without being overwhelmed can learn to recognize some of the nonverbals. Those who get overwhelmed can make eye contact by defocussing their eyes, but then they cannot see the finer details. I have always perceived and responded to the grosser aspects of emotional affect (the psychology noun definition of "affect" not the verb). Smile, frown, laugh, cry etc. Some autistics do not respond to those either. A lot of autistics cannot recognize faces even their own mother's face.

fMRI studies show autistics use the logic processing areas of our brains to interpret nonverbals, whereas people typically use a different area of the brain devoted to this communication channel--almost like a coprocessor. I don't pretend to know or to understand all the differences. I know the neurological differences often involve the amygdala and mirror neurons. Some hypothesize that our increased use of the logic centers of the brain accounts for our over-representation among mathematicians, logicians and scientists.

The "coprocessor" part of the brain that is not active in autistics also more-or-less runs a simulation of other people's perspectives in real-time. Neurotypicals are continuously predicting how the other party will respond to things and then verifying that against the nonverbal signals going back and forth. I get myself in trouble a lot through inappropriate word choice because my brain does not run that simulation. To take dual perspective, I have to rephrase what I am about to say so that the other person's perspective becomes my own and then ask how I would react. You can imagine that doing so is not practical in most real-time conversations. I often choose words that offend people without meaning to. Words that have multiple definitions are fraught with danger for me. My brain retrieves a word that means what I want to say without regard to the other meanings others might attribute to it. And I don't get the real-time feedback to know when things are starting to go off the rails that most people rely on to make quick course corrections as they go along.

The downside to using our logic centers is we often cannot use those centers for analyzing conversational content at the same time. If I want to participate in a verbal conversation, I cannot participate in the nonverbal conversation. If I want to understand the nonverbals of conversants, I can only spectate. Additionally, a lot of autistics have peculiar sensory issues. For example, some autistics can watch or listen but not both at the same time. Some small noises completely derail my brain.

It can also take a long time to learn the nonberbal signals when one is not wired for it. I have a distinct memory at the age of 36 correctly identifying that a conversant in a 3-way conversation was angry or annoyed, but way too late to prevent the anger. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment when I first noted the signals for boredom, but I have no memories of noting it before my 40's. Aspies like myself are notorious for boring people and not understanding why or how.

Because the same areas of the brain normally responsible for interpreting nonverbal signals also control the sending of nonverbal signals, autistics tend not to send anything on that channel. However, neurotypicals are wired to interpret that channel regardless. That interpretation of what is essentially meaningless noise often works to the detriment of the autistic. Even when we can get the gross expressions right, we do not get the micro-expressions right. I find neurotypicals are often adamant about what the "know" I meant even when they are dead wrong.

Aspie marriages tend to end badly because neurotypical spouses find us inherently unsatisfying when we cannot reciprocate their non-verbal communications.

Lou Pagnucco said at February 17, 2009 8:47 AM:

Thanks for providing these insights.

You explained some of the behaviors of a high functioning autistic student I tutored years ago. His gaze seemed always misplaced. He was a calculating savant, but sometimes stumped by geometric problems.

I just did a search on "autism" at sciam.com - a lot of great material there.

Hopefully, neurophysiologists/neuropharmacologists will devise ways for all of us to explore the dimensions of consciousness we are usually oblivious to - unless the authoritarians continue impeding science.

Bob Badour said at February 17, 2009 5:46 PM:

Be careful with sciam.com

Autism has been a cause célèbre for close to a decade now. It is highly politicized with a lot of bullshit published to bolster sides in legal arguments. Vaccines don't cause autism; that doesn't stop 4000 families from suing for compensation for alleged vaccination injury. You will find a lot of fucking lunatics like what's her face um Jenny McCarthy and Imus' wife spouting all sorts of nonsense in the media and the presidents of large media outlets funding bigoted and prejudicial political vehicles like autismspeaks.org, and that tends to color what popular magazines like scientific american cover.

I find plosone.org and eurekalert.org much better sources than sciam.com

Diogenes said at May 8, 2009 9:53 AM:

What Micro said on February 11th deserves to be repeated:

"The less intelligent will choose between more or less empathy, the most intelligent will go for empathy associated to self control and restrain to judge immediately. This will enable the better to not react blindly to an emphatic stimulus. Many leaders and scammers are very good on fooling the empathy of their followers, so they are able to manipulate them.

Too much empathy and the subject is manipulable by people able to forge signals.
Too few empathy and the subjects will be unable to bond and form a society.

A strong empathy urge associated with a stronger ability to delay the reaction is needed to give time to the individuals to evaluate the signal and verify it."

In other words, do not get angry, but get even, when you can safely get away with it. Remember that prick who gave you grief on the playing field when it is time to assess whether he deserves a promotion. :-)

Ardoran said at May 5, 2010 8:53 PM:

"Too much empathy and the subject is manipulable by people able to forge signals.
Too few empathy and the subjects will be unable to bond and form a society."

But could empathy be multidimensional? Could a person be aware of the signals others are putting out without blindly following them and then act on judgements formed ahead of time about what to do in different situations whether it is worth thinking critically about to see if they should trust the signals? Since leaders tend to manipulate people over long periods of time a person could even always start acting immediately while at the same time thinking about whether they are being tricked and then stop if they decide they are being tricked. In fact I think that's how I think.

I hear a beautiful speech on the tv and it touches by heart very deeply, I might cry a little but if I'm not being asked for immediate action I will probably look things up about the person and reason about whether I should trust them.

I guess what I'm trying to say is a person could have a very high short-term empathic response, but a more critical and analytical long-term response.

Hesitation is not good, but planning when you know a decision will have to made in the future is good.

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