Body Language Reveals ‘Empathy Gene’

Genetic Variation Linked to Empathetic Body Language and Behavior

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on November 14, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 14, 2011 -- An empathetic nod or smile may say something about your genes as well as your heart.

A new study suggests empathetic body language and behavior are linked to a genetic variation associated with sociability.

People with the “prosocial” gene displayed more caring and trusting nonverbal behaviors, like head nods, smiles, and eye contact, while listening to a loved one describe a time of suffering. They were also rated as more empathetic by strangers who watched them for 20 seconds on silent videotape.

"Our findings suggest even slight genetic variation may have tangible impact on people's behavior, and that these behavioral differences are quickly noticed by others," researcher Aleksandr Kogan, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, says in a news release.

The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Is Empathy Genetic?

For the study, researchers videotaped 23 romantic couples while one of the partners described a time of suffering in their lives. Prior to the taping, each participant was tested for a specific gene associated with oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a role in sociability, personal bonding, and maternal behaviors. It’s often called the “love hormone.”

Previous studies have shown that people with two copies of the “G” version of the gene tend to be more prosocial and behave in a way that benefits other people. People with the “A” version of the gene tend to have lower levels of empathy and a higher risk of autism.

A group of 116 strangers then watched 20-second silent clips of the videos and rated the listener on how kind, trustworthy, and caring they thought the person was based on their body language.

The results showed that people with the GG genetic variation were rated as more empathetic than people with the other variation.

Six out of the 10 people rated by the viewers as most empathetic carried the GG genetic variation, and nine out of 10 of the people rated as least empathetic had the A version.

It was amazing to see how the viewers were able to so accurately match the people to their genes, researcher Sarina Rodrigues Saturn, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University, says in the release. "It makes sense that a gene crucial for social processing would yield these findings; other studies have shown that people are good at judging people at a distance and first impressions really make an impact."

Oxytocin Influences Behavior

Researchers say the results suggest that differences in the oxytocin receptor gene may influence social behavior. People without the “prosocial” version of the gene may need more coaxing to come out of their shells.

"It may not be that we need to fix people who exhibit less social traits, but that we recognize they are overcoming a genetically influenced trait and that they may need more understanding and encouragement," Saturn says.