Affective knowledge, the ability to understand others' emotional states, is considered to be a fundamental part in efficient social interaction. Affective knowledge can be seen as related to cognitive empathy, and in the framework of theory of mind (ToM) as affective ToM. Previous studies found that cognitive empathy and ToM are heritable, yet little is known regarding the specific genes involved in individual variability in affective knowledge. Investigating the genetic basis of affective knowledge is important for understanding brain mechanisms underlying socio-cognitive abilities. The 7-repeat (7R) allele within the third exon of the dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4-III) has been a focus of interest, due to accumulated knowledge regarding its relevance to individual differences in social behavior. A recent study suggests that an interaction between the DRD4-III polymorphism and sex is associated with cognitive empathy among adults. We aimed to examine the same association in two childhood age groups. Children (N = 280, age 3.5 years, N = 283, age 5 years) participated as part of the Longitudinal Israel Study of Twins. Affective knowledge was assessed through children's responses to an illustrated story describing different emotional situations, told in a laboratory setting. The findings suggest a significant interaction between sex and the DRD4-III polymorphism, replicated in both age groups. Boy carriers of the 7R allele had higher affective knowledge scores than girls, whereas in the absence of the 7R there was no significant sex effect on affective knowledge. The results support the importance of DRD4-III polymorphism and sex differences to social development. Possible explanations for differences from adult findings are discussed, as are pathways for future studies.
Keywords: DRD4; affective knowledge; affective perspective taking; cognitive empathy; dopamine; gender.