Monday, January 21, 2019

The evolution of empathy

Maria Walpole and her daughter Elisabeth Laura (1762), by Joshua Reynolds. Affective empathy may have initially evolved to facilitate the mother-child relationship. 

Empathy is key to the functioning of high-trust cultures. If everyone is empathic toward each other, there is no need to waste energy on self-protection or on double-checking every single transaction. Just as importantly, you can make transactions that would otherwise be uneconomical.

Empathy, however, has to be reciprocated. Otherwise, it will divert your limited resources to people who will never reciprocate and who will, in fact, bleed you dry.  

The adaptiveness of empathy therefore depends on the cultural environment. Some cultures will favor it but not others. Does it follow, then, that some human populations have become more empathic than others? Can this mental trait undergo gene-culture coevolution?

It can, if three pre-conditions are met:

1. The trait varies in adaptiveness from one culture to another.

2. The trait is genetically heritable.

3. The trait can easily evolve out of pre-existing traits, i.e., only a few genetic changes are needed.

Evolutionary psychologists will argue that modern humans have not existed long enough to evolve new mental adaptations, particularly since their expansion out of Africa and into new natural and cultural environments. There has only been fine-tuning of existing adaptations (Tooby, Cosmides, and Barkow 1992). This argument is debatable:

Even if 40 or 50 thousand years were too short a time for the evolutionary development of a truly new and highly complex mental adaptation, which is by no means certain, it is certainly long enough for some groups to lose such an adaptation, for some groups to develop a highly exaggerated version of an adaptation, or for changes in the triggers or timing of that adaptation to evolve. That is what we see in domesticated dogs, for example, who have entirely lost certain key behavioral adaptations of wolves such as paternal investment. Other wolf behaviors have been exaggerated or distorted. (Harpending and Cochran 2002)

Empathy can thus differ between human populations if the differences arise from simple changes to an existing mechanism.

So does empathy meet the above preconditions?

Differences in adaptiveness

All cultures have rules of one sort or another. These rules are enforced by external sanctions (shaming by the community, especially by family members) and internal sanctions (feelings of guilt). Most cultures rely primarily on shaming. Some cultures, particularly in Europe, rely much more on feelings of guilt. Guilt is a subset of empathy. As the wrongdoer, you transfer to yourself the feelings of the person you have wronged. You feel the pain you have inflicted, and you will now mentally punish yourself.

The anthropologist Ruth Benedict described the differences between shame and guilt:

True shame cultures rely on external sanctions for good behavior, not, as true guilt cultures do, on an internalized conviction of sin. Shame is a reaction to other people's criticism. A man is shamed either by being openly ridiculed and rejected or by fantasying to himself that he has been made ridiculous. In either case, it is a potent sanction. But it requires an audience or at least a man's fantasy of an audience. Guilt does not. In a nation where honor means living up to one's own picture of oneself, a man may suffer from guilt though no man knows of his misdeed and a man's feeling of guilt may actually be relieved by confessing his sin. (Benedict 1946, p. 223)

Shame seems to be evolutionarily older than guilt. Sigmund Freud speculated that feelings of guilt arose as a mechanism to punish misbehavior in larger communities where paternal authority is insufficient: 

When an attempt is made to widen the community, the same conflict is continued in forms which are dependent on the past; and it is strengthened and results in a further intensification of the sense of guilt. [...]. What began in relation to the father is completed in relation to the group. If civilization is a necessary course of development from the family to humanity as a whole, then [...] there is inextricably bound up with it an increase of the sense of guilt, which will perhaps reach heights that the individual finds hard to tolerate. (Freud 1962, pp. 79-80)

East Asians might seem to be an exception to this evolutionary trend. They generally live in large communities where paternal authority is insufficient to enforce social rules. This problem seems to have been resolved through a stronger sense of social duty, rather than a greater propensity for empathy and guilt.

We see this in a study of young Chinese adults. The participants could see things from another person's perspective and understand how that person felt, but they did not seem to internalize those feelings and experience them vicariously. They were motivated to obey social rules by a sense of duty, rather than by empathy and feelings of guilt: "taking the views of others is an essential duty, and the lack of consideration to others' perspectives is generally regarded as a lack of virtue in the Chinese culture" (Siu and Shek 2005).


First, we should keep in mind that empathy is not a unitary construct. It has different components:

Pro-social behavior: willingness to help others

Cognitive empathy:  capacity to understand how others feel

Affective or emotional empathy: involuntary transference of another person's feelings to yourself, i.e., feeling that person's pain or joy.

The last component is usually what we mean by empathy. Nonetheless, a person can be low in affective empathy while being high in cognitive empathy; this is in fact the hallmark of the sociopath, i.e., a person who understands how others feel and knows how to exploit those feelings for personal gain. Of the three kinds of empathy, pro-social behavior seems the most divergent and shares the least mental circuitry with the other two. Cognitive and affective empathy share circuits that specialize in representing another person's thoughts and intensions; affective empathy seems to be an additional step where these representations are relayed to brain regions that produce the corresponding emotional responses (Carr et al. 2003; Krishnan et al. 2016).

The latest review of the literature concluded that all three components of empathy have moderate to high heritability (Chakrabarti and Baron-Cohen 2013). Since then, an adult twin study has estimated the heritability of affective empathy at 52-57% and that of cognitive empathy at 27%. The rest of the variance was largely due to non-shared environment (Melchers et al. 2016). 

These findings are in line with those of a longitudinal twin study of children from 7 to 12 years of age. Genetic influences accounted for most of the variance in callousness/unemotionality, and environmental influences were entirely non-shared (Henry et al. 2018). Other studies have shown that the capacity for affective empathy remains stable as a child develops, while cognitive empathy progressively increases (Decety et al. 2017):

Finally, men and women seem to differ in affective empathy but not in cognitive empathy: “females do indeed appear to be more empathic than males [but] [t]hey do not appear to be more adept at assessing another person's affective, cognitive, or spatial perspective” (Hoffman 1977). This sex difference has been confirmed by recent studies, notably a British study (Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright 2004), a largely Argentinean study (Baez et al. 2017), an Italian twin study (Toccaceli et al. 2018), and a Chinese study (Liu et al. 2018). The size of the sex difference varied, however, being slight in the British and Argentinean studies, large but not significant in the Italian study, and significant in the Chinese study. 

Evolution in Homo sapiens

Affective empathy seems to be universal in our species. Differences do exist, however, between individuals, and these differences are distributed along a Bell curve in a human population (Baron-Cohen 2011; McGregor 2018). Any distinction between “normal people” and “sociopaths” is therefore arbitrary. There is simply a continuum of decreasing capacity for affective empathy.

Affective empathy also differs between men and women, and this sex difference seems, in turn, to differ from one population to another. This last point suggests an evolutionary pathway. Affective empathy may have initially evolved in ancestral humans as a means to facilitate the mother-child relationship. "Guilt cultures" then favored extension of affective empathy to a wider range of social interactions, as well as increased expression in men. One consequence would be a smaller sex difference in this mental trait.

How do guilt cultures ensure that affective empathy is reciprocated? They seem to resolve this problem by defining themselves much more as moral communities than as communities of related individuals. Adherence to social rules defines community membership, and these rules are perceived as being universal and absolute, as opposed to the situational morality of communities defined solely by kinship. Guilt cultures are also highly ideological. Community members monitor not only outward behavior for compliance but also inward thoughts—and this monitoring can target not just the thoughts of other members but also one’s own. Non-compliance can lead to a member being branded as morally worthless and expelled from the community (Frost 2017).

The current evidence is suggestive but not conclusive. As Baez et al. (2017) point out, most of our evidence on sex differences in empathy comes from self-report, i.e., questionnaires that men and women fill out. Many studies also fail to distinguish between cognitive empathy (understanding what others feel) and affective empathy (feeling what others feel). To measure affective empathy objectively, especially when comparing people from different cultural backgrounds, it would be best to use brain fMRIs (Krishnan et al. 2016).

To be cont'd


Baez, S., Flichtentrei, D., Prats, M., Mastandueno, R., García, A.M., Cetkovich, M., et al. (2017). Men, women...who cares? A population-based study on sex differences and gender roles in empathy and moral cognition. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0179336.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The Empathy Bell Curve. Phi Kappa Phi Forum; Baton Rouge 91(1): 10-12.

Baron-Cohen, S. and S. Wheelwright. (2004).The Empathy Quotient: An investigation of adults with Asperger Syndrome or high functioning autism, and normal sex differences. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 34: 163-175.

Benedict, R. (1946 [2005]). The Chrysanthemum and the Sword. Patterns of Japanese Culture, First Mariner Books.

Carr, L., M. Iacoboni, M-C. Dubeau, J.C. Mazziotta, and G.L. Lenzi. (2003). Neural mechanisms of empathy in humans: A relay from neural systems for imitation to limbic areas. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 100: 5497-5502.

Chakrabarti, B. and S. Baron-Cohen. (2013). Understanding the genetics of empathy and the autistic spectrum, in S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, M. Lombardo. (eds). Understanding Other Minds: Perspectives from Developmental Social Neuroscience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Davis, M.H., C. Luce, and S.J. Kraus. (1994). The heritability of characteristics associated with dispositional empathy. Journal of Personality 62: 369-391.

Decety, J., K.L. Meidenbauer, and J.M. Cowell. (2017). The development of cognitive empathy and concern in preschool children: A behavioral neuroscience investigation. Developmental Science 2018;21:e12570. 

Freud, S. (1962[1930]). Civilization and Its Discontents. New York: W.W. Norton

Frost, P. (2017). The Hajnal line and gene-culture coevolution in northwest Europe. Advances in Anthropology 7: 154-174.

Harpending, H., and G. Cochran. (2002). In our genes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA) 99(1): 10-12.

Henry, J., G. Dionne, E. Viding, A. Petitclerc, B. Feng, F. Vitaro, M. Brendgen, R.E. Tremblay, and M. Boivin. (2018). A longitudinal twin study of callous-unemotional traits during childhood. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 127(4): 374-384. 

Hoffman, M. L. (1977). Sex differences in empathy and related behaviors. Psychological Bulletin 84(4): 712-722. 

Krishnan, A., C.W. Woo, L.J. Chang, L. Ruzic, X. Gu, M. López-Solà, P.L Jackson, J. Pujol, J. Fan, and T.D. Wager. (2016). Somatic and vicarious pain are represented by dissociable multivariate brain patterns. eLife 2016;5:e15166 

Liu, J., X. Qiao, F. Dong, and A. Raine. (2018). The Chinese version of the cognitive, affective, and somatic empathy scale for children: Validation, gender invariance and associated factors. PLoS ONE 13(5): e0195268. 

McGregor, J. (2018). The highly empathic. SoRECS – The Society for Research into Empathy, Cruelty & Sociopathy. May

Melchers, M., C. Montag, M. Reuter, F.M. Spinath, and E. Hahn. (2016). How heritable is empathy? Differential effects of measurement and subcomponents. Motivation and Emotion 40(5): 720-730. 

Siu, A.M.H. and D.T. L. Shek. (2005). Validation of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index in a Chinese Context. Research on Social Work Practice 15: 118-126.

Toccaceli, V., C. Fagnani, N. Eisenberg, G. Alessandri, A. Vitale and M.A. Stazi. (2018). Adult Empathy: Possible Gender Differences in Gene-Environment Architecture for Cognitive and Emotional Components in a Large Italian Twin Sample. Twin Research and Human Genetics 21(3): 214-226

Tooby J, L. Cosmides, and J. Barkow. (1992). Introduction: Evolutionary Psychology and Conceptual Integration. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, and L. Tooby (eds.) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, pp. 3-16, New York: Oxford Univ. Press; 1992.


tired said...

>an internalized conviction of sin.

Of course you'd cite something like this, you purposely seek out justifications for religion (or, rather, Christianity).

Anthropologist James Fraser proposed that scientific prediction and control of nature supplants religion as a means of controlling uncertainty in our lives. This hunch is supported by data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non belief and there are strong correlations between atheism and intelligence (see my earlier post on this). (

“If religion is indeed an evolved domain – an instinct – then it will become heightened at times of stress, when people are inclined to act instinctively, and there is clear evidence for this,” []

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. explains: ["As a historian, I confess to a certain amusement when I hear the Judeo-Christian tradition praised as the source of our present-day concern for human rights… "] (

[…]a ground-breaking study on religious belief and social well-being was published in the Journal of Religion & Society. Comparing 18 prosperous democracies from the U.S. to New Zealand, author Gregory S Paul quietly demolished the myth that faith strengthens society.

Drawing on a wide range of studies to cross-match faith – measured by belief in God and acceptance of evolution – with homicide and intimate behavior, Paul found that secular societies have lower rates of violence and teenage pregnancy than societies where many people profess belief in God.
(Re: Predominantly Atheist Countries Have Lowest Crime Rate According To Study by Ibime(m)/

Sean said...

"If everyone is emphatic toward each other, there is no need to waste energy on self-protection or on double-checking every single transaction. Just as importantly, you can make transactions that would otherwise be uneconomical."

Wouldn't things have to start from rational self-interest though? Your ideas of empathy as being hardwired seems very different to what Martin Nowak says about the importance of indirect reciprocity or reputation in motivating co-operative behavior. I wonder if freeriders would not run wild amid hardwired effective empathy. A lot of conversation is about others reputation for being trustworthy, or not.

Luke Lea said...

Interesting that both Adam Smith and David Hume placed such a big emphasis on wanting to be well thought of by their peers. Is that shame culture or guilt culture or both? How does it relate to outbreeding?

Peter Frost said...

"data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non belief and there are strong correlations between atheism and intelligence"
"secular societies have lower rates of violence and teenage pregnancy than societies where many people profess belief in God"

You're talking about the European world, especially Western Europe, and East Asia, especially Japan. Yes, today those societies are very secular, but that hasn't always been the case.

A hundred years ago, those societies were just as intelligent as they are today (probably more so, given the data presented in earlier posts). They also had low levels of personal violence and teenage pregnancy. In fact, illegitimate births were much less frequent. Yet they were much more religious back then than now.

If you want to know the "secret of the West," as opposed to scoring debating points, you have to go back in time to the period when these social and economic characteristics fell into place. Low rates of teenage pregnancy? That seems to be a long-running cultural trait that goes back to the earliest historical records. Low rates of personal violence? That came about during the late medieval and early modern eras, probably because violent males were systematically removed from the gene pool. High intelligence? That's partly a long-running trait, although there is evidence that mean IQ rose during late medieval and early modern times.

I would also question your view that Western societies are truly secularized today. Christianity has given way to a kind of post-Christianity that is no less intolerant, narrow-minded, and bigoted.


Indirect reciprocity is how things work in most societies, i.e., low-trust societies. It's not very efficient because you have to mistrust anyone you don't fully know, i.e., anyone who isn't a friend or acquaintance is a potential thief, swindler, or killer. It's more efficient to live in a society where you can trust people.


Shame and shaming exist in guilt cultures, but they are exceeded in importance by guilt proneness and empathy. Unlike hbd*chick I don't see outbreeding as being causally important in the creation of high-trust societies.

ChristopherDT said...

To Peter Frost: At your discretion I would be interested in your thoughts on what you called "post-Christianity" in this comment section. Perhaps this topic would digress from your usually scholarly postings, but I would be interested in your thoughts, be they personal or academic. Instead of going into detail yourself, a reference to someone who represents your thoughts would be welcome as well.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

My wife, who is Chinese, both expresses affective empathy ("Oh, I feel so sorry for ) and acts on it (By inviting her into our apartment to warm up, bringing her tea and something to read, etc). She is certainly much higher on affective empathy than Western European me.

So if you are gearing up to claim that affective empathy outside of mother-child relationships is a uniquely European trait, I won't buy it. That doesn't mean that the bell curves aren't significantly shifted compared to each other. But that is a question of hard data.


Peter Frost said...


Post-Christianity encompasses a number of overlapping belief-systems that exploit the thought patterns of Christian faith: martyrology, a linear view of history that ends in a climax and denouement, possibility of redemption and salvation, polarization between good and evil, moral universalism, and moral absolutism. Marxism became a form of post-Christianity, although that wasn't the original intention. A lot has been written on that theme, for example:

The same kind of analysis could be done on contemporary political movements, like Antifa. Unfortunately, these movements are too close in time and space to be an easy target for analysis.


The sex difference in affective empathy seems to be larger in East Asians than in Europeans, particularly northwest Europeans. I say "seem" because the evidence is mostly based on self-report. We need fMRIs to find out whether the sex difference and its apparent geographic distribution are real. There is also evidence that affective empathy declines after the age of childbearing.

I'm mystified by your criticism because everything you say is consistent with what I wrote. Your "wife" is a woman, am I correct? Do your male in-laws act the same way?

ChristopherDT said...

Thank you, Peter. I have a pre-existing interest in the world-denying or anti-biological ideological connections between gnostic sects like the Cathars and modern political movements like communism or some expressions of the social justice movement. Your answer will be quite helpful to me.

Sean said...

Nowak says big groups undermine cooperation and so does the ability to migrate between groups.

Spiral Dynamics for China said...

Cognitive empathy would be more from inherited info in the genes (unconsciousness) as well as being taught by parents or other adults educators or caregivers (part of progress of being socialized), in this case people understand WHAT other people feel however mostly in concept instead of HOW. To understand HOW other people feel one is required to be able to experience that kind of feeling physically (somatic feeling) which means in most cases he/she had similar real experiences in the past.


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