Simon Baron-Cohen has done some amazing work on autism and I’ve enjoyed reading a number of his articles in the past so decided to have a go with his 3rd book Zero Degrees Of Empathy, the subtitle being “A New Theory of Human Cruelty“. (Part of a series of posts on ‘evil’.)
He starts with saying evil is a pointless concept; he wants to replace this with a lack of empathy. “If I have an agenda it is to urge people not to be satisfied with the word ‘evil’ as an explanatory tool, and, if I have moved the debate out of the domain of religion and into the social and biological sciences, I will feel this book has made a contribution.”
He defines empathy as follows:
“Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention, and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention. Empathy is our ability to identity what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.”
He defines levels of empathy from 0 to 6, where people at 0 cannot understand the mind of others and people at 6 are super empathisers. He splits level 0 into the categories of negative and positive zero empathy.
Kinds of negative zero empathy include the psychopath, the narcissist and the borderline and he describes in detail the sort of nasty things they can do and gets into their mindset so we can understand why. He says that while these so-called personality disorders have long been classified and discussed, his is a new paradigm in which to classify and diagnose them and hence more helpfully deal with them. (I think the way we classify “abnormal” behaviour is usually not very helpful as these classifications can become ends in themselves rather than simply targets of understanding. BC adds himself to the list of people that find the DSM limited and often counter productive.)
He then considers positive zero empathy, i.e. those that don’t hurt other people, so people with Aspergers / autism and looks at the difficulties and advantages of conditions in the spectrum. He says that although they have empathy difficulties, they “are often strong systemizers which can be remarkably positive“.
He discusses aspects of the Zero-Positive mind describing a “constant striving to step out of time, to set aside the temporal dimension in order to see the eternal repeating patterns in nature. Change represents the temporal dimension seeping into an otherwise perfectly predictable, systemizable world, where wheels spin round and round and levels can move only back and forth…. People with autism…may become aware of the dimension of time only during events that contain novelty and which therefore violate expectations. The ‘zero-positive’ mind finds change toxic”.
He looks at 10 different parts of the brain that carry out different aspects of empathic work, and presents some of the evidence for them. He dubs this “the empathy circuit“.
He shows evidence that both genes and upbringing affect this circuit (of course genes can be activated and deactivated by the environment too). It should be noted that “these are not genes for empathy per se but are genes for proteins expressed in the brain that – through many small steps – are linked to empathy”.
He introduces the “internal pot of gold” metaphor making reference to the infamous Romanian orphanage studies where kids with no physical intimacy with adults don’t develop empathy and emotion properly – it can be seen in their brain scans where there are deficiencies, confirming his empathy circuit theory. Sometimes these issues don’t come to the surface until another stressor triggers them, such as becoming a parent.
As well as nature and nurture, short term factors can also affect this circuit. Stress, hormones, alcohol, fatigue and depression can deactivate it.
Responding To This New Interpretation
He spends the final section of the book discussing how to respond to his theory with some interesting comments, though does occasionally wander off into unwarranted speculation.
He outlines some treatments such as the educational software he’s developed to help people with autism, and points to interesting research with oxytocin inhalers.
He says that when viewing crimes against others through this new paradigm it leads to a greater understanding of why the person committed the crime. This leads to the possibility that “they deserve our sympathy rather than punishment”. That said, he says that sometimes “imprisonment is necessary for three reasons: to protect society from the …individual, to signal society’s disapproval of the crime, and to restore a sense of justice given the victim’s feelings”. Not that I necessarily agree with the latter. We have the law to stand between the victim and the criminal for a reason – so that emotion and vengeance does not have free reign.
Pushing “this to its logical conclusion: if unambiguously ‘evil’ individuals felt remorse for their crimes, and had been punished, would we try to focus on their good qualities, with a view to rehabilitating them?”
My own view is that of course we should. I fall on the side that people are always redeemable; people can always change – the brain is amazingly plastic. Otherwise “dehumanizing them…renders us no better than the person we punish.”
He raises “a deeper question about our human nature: namely, are we all capable of killing?” He extends his theory to say that only people with “low empathy could attack or kill another person, that is, individuals whose empathy is temporarily or permanently shut down” though he does not justify this in any way.
He says something that I like very much: “when it comes to problem solving, clearly many situations require both logic and empathy. They are not mutually exclusive.” You can do his personality tests for empathy and for systemizing and I was interested to find I’m well above average on both measures.
He finishes with a call that “empathy is one of the most valuable resources in our world” and that parents, educators and psychologists have overlooked it for too long. He tells a beautiful story of two guys who travel around displaying remarkable empathy. He says he was in a Jewish synagogue in London and saw the two men speak:
“The first one spoke ‘I am Ahmed, and I am a Palestinian. My son died in the Intifada, killed by an Israeli bullet. I come to wish you all Shabbat Shalom.’ Then the other man spoke: ‘I am Moishe, and I am an Israeli. My son also died in the Intifada, killed by a homemade petrol bomb thrown by a Palestinian teenager, I come to wish you all Salaam Alaikem.’”
He says “Empathy is like a universal solvent… and unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.“