Study: How heritable is empathy? Differential effects of measurement and subcomponents

Empathy is an important psychological concept influencing social interaction. However, knowledge about its etiological components is still scarce.


Estimates for the heritability of empathy range between 0 and 70 % depending on the sample, method of measurement, and level of aggregation. In this study, we investigated the heritability of empathy using an extended twin design.


We employed the self-report questionnaire Interpersonal Reactivity Index and an emotion recognition task (Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test). N = 742 twins and non-twin siblings were investigated. For affective empathy and the behavioral paradigm, we found heritability estimates between 52 and 57 %. For cognitive empathy, genetic variance was smaller (27 %), indicating that the heritability of empathy depends on the measured subcomponent, which could be relevant for intervention programs like empathy or compassion trainings.


Environmental influences on empathy are mainly effects of non-shared environment, which is an important finding for our understanding of the development of empathy.


Melchers, M., Montag, C., Reuter, M. et al. Motiv Emot (2016) 40: 720. doi:10.1007/s11031-016-9573-