Do you have high--or low--emotional intelligence? It may be due to your parents. Not only because of the way they raised you, but because of the genes they passed on to you before you were born.

That's the surprising result of new research by University of Cambridge, the Institut Pasteur, Paris Diderot University in Paris and the genetics testing startup 23andMe. The scientists administered a scientifically proven test called the Empathy Quotient to 46,861 people who have had their genes tested by 23andMe. They found a definite connection between a person's genetics and his or her ability to empathize with others.

Empathy is the biggest component of emotional intelligence, but empathy itself consists of two separate abilities. Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize another person's emotions. Affective empathy is the ability and desire to respond to another person's emotions with an appropriate emotion of your own. The Empathy Quotient test measures both components of empathy.

After collecting the Empathy Quotient information on the study participants, researchers ran a statistical analysis looking at 10 million genetic variants. They found that genetic variations accounted for about 10 percent of a person's empathy or lack thereof. They have not yet mapped exactly which genes contribute to greater empathy, though. 

It's not all your fault.

The character Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory is famously unable to accurately recognize other people's emotions--a lack of cognitive empathy. He's lacking in affective empathy as well--even when he does know what other people are feeling he rarely comes up with an emotionally appropriate response. It's easy to assume that this is because he's fundamentally selfish (which he is) and doesn't care that much how other people are feeling. But he often complains about his inability to recognize others' emotions and in one episode even uses a specially designed machine from MIT that identifies emotions using biological signals.

If you have trouble recognizing what other people are feeling and responding appropriately, it may not just be because you're selfish and uncaring like Sheldon--your genetics may make it more difficult for you to recognize and share other people's emotions. But just like Sheldon--who eventually decides he doesn't need his emotion-reading machine--you can get better at it if you try. Scientists discovered a genetic link that determines 10 percent of your ability to empathize, but the other 90 percent is still up for grabs. 

There are a variety of techniques you can try for improving your emotional intelligence or raising your Empathy Quotient score. Most of them require setting aside your smartphone or other distractions and focusing hard on both the person in front of you and your own emotions and reactions. They can also involve uncomfortable conversations, such as asking your friends and colleagues how well you're recognizing their feelings and how you yourself are coming across.

Whatever hand your genetics have dealt you, you can improve your emotional intelligence--if you recognize its importance and are willing to make a serious effort. That effort will likely pay off. Some researchers say that emotional intelligence accounts for 75 percent of a person's success--and that's probably even more true if you're an entrepreneur, since the relationships you form early on are likely to make or break your company.

Even if you're every bit as selfish as Sheldon, it's worth taking the time to learn about emotional intelligence and how to develop it. You'll be happy you did.

Published on: Mar 13, 2018