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    A New Theory On Human Cruelty By Simon Baron-Cohen
    By Kim Wombles | May 27th 2011 08:32 AM | 13 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    Instructor of English and psychology and mother to three on the autism spectrum.

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    Simon Baron-Cohen is best known for his research into autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and his theories on the origins of ASDs, from a failure of theory of mind, to fetal testosterone levels, to the latest formulation of a low empathizing/high systemizing theory. In his newest work, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and The Origins of Cruelty, Baron-Cohen moves beyond his decades long work in autism to look at empathy in general and what a deficit of empathy in people can lead to. The result is a slim volume aspiring to greater things.

    This is, unfortunately, a book that requires mental gymnastics on the part of the reader for several reasons, the first of which is reconciling the title of the text to what the book is actually about. A careful reading of the book leads me to the conclusion that the American title is extremely unfortunate given the diversions he takes in the text. It is only when reading it under its British title Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty that Baron-Cohen’s thesis hangs together more cohesively. The British title is a much more accurate title and results in less cognitive dissonance while reading the text.

    In an interview in New Scientist with Liz Else, Baron-Cohen responds to the American publisher’s choice of a title that he thinks “once they open the cover of the book, they will see that I’m arguing it’s time to drop that word [evil]. There might be some value in challenging them.” The American publishers may have decided to name the book The Science of Evil, but the thrust of his book really isn’t about the science of evil at all. It’s actually a loose connecting of several different ideas.

    The second set of mental gymnastics occurs for the reader in trying to reconcile the typical perception regarding empathy and how Baron-Cohen is operationalizes it. Baron-Cohen’s main point is that he believes evil is better explained as the absence of empathy (not the popular definition, but his specific definition of empathy). Baron-Cohen’s definition of empathy is fairly complex and one that is not widely accepted in the masses; most people think of empathy as being able to understand another person’s emotional state. Before defining empathy, Baron-Cohen focuses on explaining what empathy erosion looks like.

    Childhood stories of Nazi cruelties started Baron-Cohen on a lifetime quest of trying to understand how people could treat others like objects; explanations of evil were inadequate and circular. Instead, he posits that empathy erosion is a better explanation for why people behave cruelly, noting that society can reinforce empathy erosion.

    His definition of empathy is more robust than most people’s and involves more parts: he delineates a cognitive aspect (“recognition”), an emotional aspect , and then, perhaps most importantly, an action component “response”). It’s not enough to recognize another person’s emotional state, one must care, and then one must respond overtly in order to qualify as empathy. This constant need for the reader to juggle his or her own definition of empathy and Baron-Cohen’s complex definition makes the ideas and information in the book harder to digest. It will become all too easy for people to dismiss Baron-Cohen’s work because of this difference in how empathy is used.

    In order to explain how evil is “empathy erosion,” Baron-Cohen details disorders he hypothesizes involve zero-empathy, making the case that psychopathy, narcissism, and borderline personality disorders are not so much personality disorders as they are disorders of zero empathy.

    And if this is where Baron-Cohen had stopped, it would have made sense within the context of the book’s American title and its opening chapter. But he didn’t; he then spent a substantial portion of the text to go over what he has theorized are zero-empathy positive disorders:  Asperger Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

    It is here that Baron-Cohen will lose some American readers; what place do individuals on the spectrum have in a book on the science of evil? In addition, Baron-Cohen doesn’t offer convincing evidence that all individuals with autism have zero empathy. Readers familiar with how it’s defined in the DSM will recognize that it is not a disorder diagnosed on a lack of empathy.

    Also, some research shows evidence that autistics are not impaired in emotional or affective empathy, and may in fact get overloaded because of it (Krahn &Fenton, 2009; Smith, 2009). Plus, autism is a social/communication disorder; it’s reasonable to assume that this might impair the ability to always react empathically in socially constructed acceptable ways. Even Baron-Cohen notes that we all have periods where are empathy levels are turned down or off.

    To be fair, Baron-Cohen doesn’t contend that ASDs are just zero empathy disorders. In tandem with Baron-Cohen’s empathy quotient is his systemizing quotient, which he contends autistics are high in, thus compensating for low empathy and making the ASDs a zero-positive condition rather than a zero-negative. Here he has a compelling argument that explains the pattern recognition, the need for order, and the difficulty with change that are part of autism. The problem, again, becomes that it fits poorly with a book on the science of evil. The American name of the book continues, time after time, to get in the way of the ideas that Baron-Cohen is trying to convey.

    What should not be overlooked is that Baron-Cohen has as positive an outlook towards individuals on the spectrum as he does a negative one for those with a zero-empathy negative disorder. His enormous respect for autistic individuals’ ability to recognize patterns that others miss does not go unnoticed, nor does his belief that those with ASDs have a lot to offer a society that can successfully accommodate them.

    The book contains a table for “Distinct Profiles of Empathy Disorders,” in which Baron-Cohen contends that classic autism has morality negative while Asperger Syndrome has morality positive but with insufficient accompanying evidence or explanation for the categorization of one ASD as moral and another as not moral. The table doesn’t appear to be fully fleshed out; systemizing is only noted on the ASDs; morality negative is checked for only psychopaths and classic autism. It appears to be a table of conjectures rather than of certainties, but that may be because Baron-Cohen’s explanations for the various categorizations are scattered throughout the text.

    This interweaving of hypothesizing without already existing evidence next to theories that have panned out can get a bit confusing, but those familiar with Baron-Cohen’s other works will recognize this tendency and perhaps find it comforting. Baron-Cohen is interested in ideas, big ideas, and in constantly working to flesh out those ideas with scientific research. Over the last several decades, Baron-Cohen has constantly refined his theories, moving for the most part where the science takes him. Many of Baron-Cohen’s ideas are just that: ideas, explanations; they aren’t meant for practical implementation, for immediate change.

    Most parents and educators won’t see an immediate advantage in treatment strategies from some of his loftier ideas, although they may find his theories helpful in understanding why an autistic child is fascinated with patterns, with details, and why they fixate on narrow interests. It would be remiss of me, though, to not to point out where his ideas have had real world treatment applications: theory of mind tasks can be taught, as can recognizing facial expressions representing different emotions. HisMindreading CD was very helpful to my three kids on the spectrum and one of the best purchases I ever made regarding helping them navigate social situations. I have dog-eared his books over the years, and print-outs of his voluminous journal articles are piled on the bookcase next to his books. His website is bookmarked and the fact that the journal articles are provided for free there much appreciated. His AQ (autism spectrum quotient), EQ (empathizing quotient), and SQ (systemizing quotient) tests are recommended activities for my psychology students and for friends. The importance of his work in relation to autism spectrum disorders is significant, and in the context of the British title, his time spent on what he posits are zero-empathy positive disorders makes perfect sense.

    After a brief foray into the ASDs and the zero-empathy positive theory, Baron-Cohen moves to the science. Here, he combines a chatty, informal style of writing with a detailed look at the science regarding what he calls the brain’s empathy circuits. This is perhaps the least controversial aspect of the book and where he is on the most solid ground. Baron-Cohen details the neuroscience regarding the empathy circuits and the evidence for these various subsets of zero empathy having impairments or damage in the areas of the brain involved in empathy.

    In a book that covers empathy erosion, looks at tests for measuring empathy, it seems odd to see Baron-Cohen argue towards the end of his book that psychology has ignored empathy over its history: “Psychology as a science virtually ignored it for a century” (183). There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that this is not true; database searches relating to psychology produce over 23,000 journal articles on empathy. Daniel Goleman has spent two decades promoting social and emotional intelligences, which both involve empathy. It seems fair to say that empathy has been looked at in great detail over the decades, although perhaps not in the way that Baron-Cohen thinks most applicable or helpful.

    Baron-Cohen spends some time towards the end of the book examining the appropriate way to handle people with zero empathy disorders who commit crimes. Should they be held criminally responsible for their actions and imprisoned? If their crimes are a result of a neurological deficit, then the assumption here is that they couldn’t refrain from those acts and didn’t know better. There is little doubt that people with the zero empathy negative disorders are competent to understand when their actions violate a law (the reality appears to be that they don’t care and don’t see why those laws should apply to them).

    But what does one do with the brilliant Aspie who hacks into classified governmental systems? Is jail appropriate? This is a complex topic with so many potential pitfalls and the chance for warring ideologies to get in the way of scientific knowledge. Perhaps a reminder that jail is usually about society and the victims and not about appropriate placement or consideration of the offender is in order. The issue is raised, at least, in the book, and Baron-Cohen puts forth the hope that compassion and appropriate placements for individuals will occur.

    Baron-Cohen then concludes his book by examining how intentionally evoking empathy towards those one is ideologically in opposition to can resolve what seem like insurmountable problems. Having begun his book with remembrances of the stories he was told as a child about the Nazis, Baron-Cohen looks at the Jewish-Palestinian struggle and two fathers, one from each side, who work together to bring attention to the need to see the other side’s perspective: empathy bridgemaking.

    Baron-Cohen’s work is ultimately an optimistic work (and potentially somewhat Pollyannish): the idea that empathy erosions and deficits can be turned around, that people can be taught to be empathic. He points out the need to seek treatments that will teach empathy to those who lack it, which he believes should reduce cruel behavior in the world. Baron-Cohen’s overarching topic is a serious one: why people are cruel to others, but his ultimate perspective is a hopeful one: that empathy can be learned, that the empathy muscle, so to speak, can be exercised. Baron-Cohen puts forth big ideas in a too-small space. There is the sense that these ideas were swirling around, nebulous, almost there, almost in grasp and that the writing of the work was an attempt to force these big ideas to coagulate into a recognizable whole to align the idea with the known world: it is nothing less than Baron-Cohen’s own personal theory of everything. It will be interesting to see where his big ideas are, where the science takes him, five years from now. What results and what ideas, built upon the framework of this book, will coalesce in his next work?

    References:

    Krahn, T.,&Fenton, A. (2009). Autism, empathy and questions of moral agency. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 39(2), 145-166. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5914.2009.00402.x

    Smith, A. (2009). The empathy imbalance hypothesis of autism: A theoretical approach to cognitive and emotional empathy in autistic development. The Psychological Record, 59(3), 489-510. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

    Comments

    Kim

    May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
    http://CultureOfEmpathy.com

    Also, I invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.
    http://Facebook.com/EmpathyCenter

    I posted a link to your article in our
    Empathy and Compassion Magazine
    The latest news about empathy and compassion from around the world
    http://bit.ly/dVWrff

    warmly
    Edwin

    kwombles
    Thanks, Edwin. I appreciate the chance to link to this on your facebook page as well as your linking in your mag. :)
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    Gerhard Adam
    Very good article. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    kwombles
    Thanks, Gerhard. :)
    “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than a sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” --MLK, Jr.
    How is Baron-Cohen’s own empathy? He stigmatizes victims of childhood abuse - people who are labelled "borderline" - as individuals lacking empathy. I think it's terrible.

    I don't think lack of empathy is at the heart of cruelty or evil - although being the target of non-empathetic behaviour feels like being treated cruelly and with evil intent.

    I think cruelty and evil is done with full awareness of the emotional pain and distress.

    Inability to understand the target's emotional distress is different from fully understanding the distress and causing it anyway.

    Gerhard Adam
    I think it is reasonable to argue that the ability to specifically cause pain and suffering is unlikely to exist in an individual that feels empathetic, since that's the whole point of empathy. 

    In general, lack of empathy doesn't equate with cruelty, but in order to be cruel, one must lack empathy.  Note, that this doesn't equate to lack of understanding, it simply means that the individual doesn't care about the suffering.  It may be equally true that the individual causing the pain/suffering actually enjoys the act, which also indicates lack of empathy, since they are clearly experiencing something that originates in themselves, rather than associating it with the feelings of others.

    This can be illustrated by looking at the anthropomorphism associated with torturing insects.  We can't possibly understand what they feel, and we recognize certain behaviors as "cruel" (whether they actually are or not).  Yet, we invariably feel that pulling the wings from flies, is an act of cruelty as opposed to simply killing them.  So, even without any understanding, we have our own human standard regarding what we mean by suffering, even for a species that we can't actually relate to.  In that regard, it is interesting to note that we assess the individual and not the insect.  In other words, we consider the individual that behaves cruelly as being deficient as a human being, rather than focusing on the "suffering" of the insect. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Many reviewers of this book have argued that it has failed because it has failed to explain sadism. You can't dismiss this criticism by simply pulling out a definition of empathy that forbids sadism. You will have to actually explain how it is that a person can gain enjoyment from the suffering of others, in light of the generally accepted definition of empathy that has been popularized by Prof. Baron-Cohen, that empathy is understanding the emotions of others. You cannot enjoy sadism without having an understanding of the suffering of the victim, therefore, there is something seriously wrong with the popular (hugely simplistic) definition of empathy.

    How is it that empathy can disappear in a flash, if it is an intrinsic quality of a person's personality? Here is a real life example of vanishing empathy. You are waiting in a crowded emergency department of a public hospital. There is a woman groaning wrapped in a blanket, clearly suffering terribly. You feel sorry for her and are concerned that she is being kept waiting. Then you overhear a nurse explaining to another nurse that the groaning woman is a junkie withdrawing from something and regularly turns up at the ED in this same situation. Your empathy disappears in a puff of smoke! Empathy isn't some magical substance that people have more or less of. Empathy and cruelty and indifference are created by social situations.

    What an honour to get to meet such a famous professor. If I got to meet him I'd like to create the type of moment that his famous nephew Sacha likes to create, by asking after Ruth Goldblatt and her poor mother. It would be interesting to see what reply I'd get.

    Gerhard Adam
    I think you're being grossly simplistic in your statements.
    Then you overhear a nurse explaining to another nurse that the groaning woman is a junkie withdrawing from something and regularly turns up at the ED in this same situation. Your empathy disappears in a puff of smoke!
    Simply not true.  Your empathy doesn't disappear, instead it may be overridden with other moral perspectives that allow you to accept the suffering more readily.   Similarly, one could question why you felt sorry in the first place ... was it actually empathy or merely social convention?  An individual that can have empathy disappear never felt it in the first place.
    You will have to actually explain how it is that a person can gain enjoyment from the suffering of others, in light of the generally accepted definition of empathy that has been popularized by Prof. Baron-Cohen, that empathy is understanding the emotions of others. You cannot enjoy sadism without having an understanding of the suffering of the victim, therefore, there is something seriously wrong with the popular (hugely simplistic) definition of empathy.
    In the first place, you seem to being somewhat cavalier about the definitions.  What's the basis for asserting that understanding emotions requires empathy?  Your statement about enjoying sadism is precisely wrong, because one can tell that an individual is being sadistic when they pull wings from flies, but you can never make the argument that they understand what the fly is feeling.  Sadism requires reactions and responses, but it does not require understanding. 

    However, it should also be understood that empathy doesn't represent a default response.  One may be empathetic but still be able to respond aggressively if circumstances warrant.  No human emotion or response is so singular that you can make sweeping conclusions from such statements.  I can be fully empathetic towards an individual, but still kill them if circumstances warrant such extreme actions.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "Your empathy doesn't disappear, instead it may be overridden with other moral perspectives that allow you to accept the suffering more readily."

    Well, I can tell you, my empathy was real, and it did disappear in a surprisingly fast fashion when I learned the whole story.

    "An individual that can have empathy disappear never felt it in the first place."

    I'm gettng the impression that your idea of empathy might be an idealised concept more than an experience in real life.

    "What's the basis for asserting that understanding emotions requires empathy?"

    This isn't my idea, it is my understanding of the professor's concept of empathy as presented in his past writing. He has made such a big deal over many years of the reading of facial expressions, so it appears that he thinks this ability is central to empathy. I and plenty of other people understand that there is a big difference between cognitive and affective empathy, a fact that Prof. Baron-Cohen appears to have taken on board rather late in his career.

    "Your statement about enjoying sadism is precisely wrong, because one can tell that an individual is being sadistic when they pull wings from flies, but you can never make the argument that they understand what the fly is feeling. Sadism requires reactions and responses, but it does not require understanding."

    I don't think your example is at all useful in helping us to understand sadism, because I've never actually heard of a real case of a psychopath enjoying dismembering mere insects. I know it is a well-worn cliche, but it is one that doesn't seem to have much of a basis in reality. Sadists and psychopaths tend to enjoy attacking creatures that can give a more human-like emotional response and are easy targets, like mammal pets or younger or vulnerable children, or adult psychos targeting other adults.

    Gerhard Adam
    Well, I can tell you, my empathy was real, and it did disappear in a surprisingly fast fashion when I learned the whole story.
    I would question the degree of empathy that was felt in the first place.  After all, why should empathy disappear based solely on the circumstances of a story.  It doesn't mean that one has to feel sympathetic, only empathetic.
    I'm gettng the impression that your idea of empathy might be an idealised concept more than an experience in real life.
    Not at all.  My point is that empathy isn't the arbiter of actions, it is simply the acknowledgment that one can relate to the feelings of others.  It doesn't restrict ones actions towards those others.

    It seems like too much of this discussion treats empathy as if it turns someone into some sort of marshmallow, incapable of behaving in any manner except to try and alleviate someone else' s suffering.
    Sadists and psychopaths tend to enjoy attacking creatures that can give a more human-like emotional response and are easy targets, like mammal pets or younger or vulnerable children, or adult psychos targeting other adults.
    I would agree, but my point is not whether psychopaths are satisfied in torturing insects, but rather it is any individual that does so, typically does so because of the reaction and not understanding.  Specifically this is easily demonstrated in children that do something like that, and when they are told that this is torturous or hurtful to the insect, children will often react with empathy as if they hadn't realized that point.

    This is also how people "turn off" empathy (especially in times of war or conflict), because it helps to consider your opponent as other than human, specifically so that one isn't drawn into empathetic feelings towards them.  I also suspect that this may often be the case with psychopaths, where rather than having zero empathy, simply don't see their victims as humans that warrant empathy.

    My personal view is that empathy, like most of the human experiences, aren't firmly established but can be modified in those with a reasonably "normal" psychology.  Obviously those that might be considered psychotic may have permanent deficiencies that prevent such adjustments.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "I would agree, but my point is not whether psychopaths are satisfied in torturing insects, but rather it is any individual that does so, typically does so because of the reaction and not understanding. Specifically this is easily demonstrated in children that do something like that, and when they are told that this is torturous or hurtful to the insect, children will often react with empathy as if they hadn't realized that point. This is also how people "turn off" empathy (especially in times of war or conflict), because it helps to consider your opponent as other than human, specifically so that one isn't drawn into empathetic feelings towards them. I also suspect that this may often be the case with psychopaths, where rather than having zero empathy, simply don't see their victims as humans that warrant empathy."

    You have tried to explain the behaviour of adult psychopaths and ordinarily evil adults with an anecdote about innocent children who have yet to be told (possibly incorrectly) that insects have feelings. Your anecdote couldn't be less relevant to the thing to be explained. Nasty adults and psychopaths are anything but innocent. I don't draw on cliches or abstract ideas here - I'm sure everyone has first-hand experiences with the nasty sides of perfectly knowedgable, psychologically normal and mature adults. This is the thing that needs to be explained. I don't think that you or the professor have even started doing that.

    It seems to me that in your arguments and in the professor's arguments the fallacy of reification is happening. Empathy isn't a thing that one more or less healthy person can posess more or less of, it is a characteristic of social relations. The very idea of "zero empathy" is idiotic reification and it's use in the book's title is a striking warning that this fallacious way of thinking is at the heart of this book. Cruelty and empathy are aspects of social life. This is a point that Prof. Baron-Cohen clearly doesn't "get" as is evidenced by his writing about "the banality of evil" and his very scant mentinon of Stanley Milgram's momentous experiment on pages 111-112 of his book. The professor continues to wrote about individuals' reasons for acting in evil ways - he either doesn't "get" that the type of evil that he is writing about was a social, collective evil, or he wishes to avoid exploring this truth because his job is to glorify human social interaction in his position as an expert on a condition that is seen as a disorder of social functioning (autism). It appears that the reality of socially-created evil is the truth that Baron-Cohen wants to evade, just as most psychiatrists like to miscategorize social problems affecting many normal people as medical problems affecting ill individials.

    The two journal papers cited as references in this article look like very worthwhile reading that I hadn't previously known about before. Thank you to Kim for making readers aware of them. I might suggest that the two papers might be better reading than the book reviewed in the article.