The book starts with a discussion of human evil and cruelty, using some salient examples, suggesting that while ‘evil’ as a concept has little explanatory value, and is not amenable to scientific study, empathy has both. That human evil and cruelty are the result of a lack, or erosion of, empathy. Empathy being defined as:
our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion (p.16).Using the word ‘appropriate’ in a definition is troublesome unless you “cash it out” later, but we get the point. If someone lacks empathy entirely, then they are “trapped in their single focus” on themselves (p.18): such people being the subject of the book.
Before we get there, Baron-Cohen covers how empathy can be measured, and how people (permanently or temporarily) vary in empathy according to, as is so common in human traits, a Bell-curve distribution (Pp19ff). Even though empathy is a continuous dimension, as a useful heuristic, he divides people into various levels of empathy from level 0 (none) to level 6 (very high levels) according to their EQ (Emotional Quotient), a scale he and his fellow researchers devised based on questionnaires (Pp23ff).
Baron-Cohen notes the problems of self-reporting but argues these “occasional inaccuracies” are cancelled out in sufficiently large samples (p.22). His discussion covers current findings in neuroscience about relevant areas of the brain to empathy (Pp27ff). One of the things that impresses me about the book is that Baron-Cohen is careful not to over-claim, either in his discussion of the neuroscience or his later discussion of genetic connections. He does not fall foul of this critique of connecting neuroscience to psychology: his point is the more basic one of establishing that there is a biological basis for the psychology he is outlining.
When it is all about them
We then move to discussing Zero-Negative empathy; that is, people with zero empathy who behave in ways dangerous to others. Throughout the book, he uses revealing examples: in this section, of people with Borderline, Psychopathic and Narcissistic personality disorders (Type B, Type P and Type N). A weakness in this use of examples is that Baron-Cohen naturally uses particularly intense examples: one needs to pay careful attention to the discussion of general characteristics and not take his examples as templates.
It is nasty to be around a borderline, but it is not good to be one either: they are about 2% of the population but about 15% of those who turn up for counselling or psychiatric help, about 33% of those who commit suicide, and may be as many of half of those seeking clinical help for eating disorders, alcoholism and/or eating disorders; with a high propensity to commit, attempt or threaten suicide (p.55). Borderlines:
rage at those they love. … Despite all this rage, they describe themselves as “empty” inside (p.56).An emptiness they attempt to fill with impulsive behaviour and which leaves them with a lack of core identity. Marilyn Monroe was a borderline personality (Pp57ff).
So, what causes it? There is a great deal of evidence that childhood deprivation affects brain development and helps generate personality disorders. The causal connection is complicated: 80% of those who suffer childhood sexual abuse do not grow up to be borderline personalities, but 40-70% of borderline personalities report childhood sexual abuse, 60-80% report a history of physical abuse, early separation through divorce, emotional neglect, indifference, deprivation and rejection (p.62). So childhood abuse and neglect creates a strong propensity to being borderline, but is not of itself determinative. Borderline brains show distinctive patterns that include abnormalities in the brain’s “empathy circuit” (Pp62-4).
Next are the psychopaths, or Type P. These are the classic “evil individuals”. They also lack empathy, but are willing to do whatever will satisfy their desires (p.64). About 3 percent of males and 1 percent of females have antisocial personality disorder (which includes psychopaths), but about half of all male prison inmates and a quarter of female prison inmates have antisocial personality disorder (p.67). The classic identified symptoms of psychopaths are:
superficial charmEconomics predicts that criminals will tend to be people with short time horizons, which fits. Baron-Cohen is more specifically interested in the lack of empathy involved in so many of the above symptoms. Part of the danger of the psychopaths is that they may not be physically aggressive, but can be more subtly so. Baron-Cohen accepts that the cliché “snakes in suits” is an apt description of how they can be camouflaged.
lack of anxiety or guilt
undependability and dishonesty
inability to form lasting intimate relationships
failure to learn from punishment
poverty of emotions
lack of insight into the impact of their behaviour
failure to plan ahead (p.68).
Psychopaths respond to parental rejection with rage. Blocked from being expressed towards their parents, the rage builds up, to be vented later in life, unchecked by any empathy (Pp69ff).
Baron-Cohen briefly sets out child psychiatrist John Bowlby’s attachment theory, which generates predictions that are supported by considerable evidence. The theory holds that an infant uses the primary care-giver as a “secure base” from which to explore the world:
By giving praise, reassurance, and a feeling of safety, the caregiver’s affections helps the child manage his or her anxiety, develop self-confidence, and trust in the security of their relationship (p.71).Baron-Cohen paraphrases this as successful parenting gives a child an “internal pot of gold” that fills the child up with positive emotions. Psychopaths typically have a higher rate of what Bowlby (who developed his theory from work with juvenile delinquents) called “insecure attachment” (Pp 71ff).
Psychologist Jeffrey Gray developed the theory that psychopaths have an under-active “Behavioural Inhibition System” (BIS), the structure that allows learning about the emotional consequences of actions, while anxious people have an over-active BIS. Hence psychopaths do not learn to fear punishment: with clear consequences. Psychopaths also show brain abnormalities in their “empathy circuit” (Pp79ff).
Then it is on to narcissists (Type N), the least studied of the three main types of personality disorders. They lack empathy or humility, think themself much better than other people, typically tending to monologues rather than conversations; though narcissists can vary greatly in their mode of social interaction from outgoing to shy and withdraw. A massive sense of entitlement is a common feature, however. It is speculated that excessive parental admiration, praise or indulgence is a factor in the creation of narcissists. They are about 1 percent of the population but about 16% of those attending clinics for mental health issues while a half to three-quarters are male (Pp88ff).
Baron-Cohen discusses how empathy can be temporarily or permanently depressed (Pp 93-4). This is of particular interest to me, because I have come to the conclusion that bigotry works by exempting people from being objects of empathy. Putting them outside the ambit of empathy.
Clearly, emptiness, rage and entitlement can occur in response to seriously unbalanced parenting and yet not create borderlines, psychopaths or narcissists. The essence of Baron-Cohen’s theory is that it is those things plus zero-empathy which makes Type B, P or N personality disorders.
All about patterns
Then it is on to an even more enlightening discussion of how zero empathy can be positive, in the case of people in the autism spectrum (particularly Aspergers). For empathy is not the sole route to developing a moral code (p.95). These people can be Zero-Positive for two reasons:
First, in their case their empathy difficulties are associated with having a brain that processes information in a way that can lead to talent. Second, their the way their brain processes information paradoxically leads them to be supermoral rather than immoral (p.96).People in the autism spectrum show underactivity in the empathy circuit (Pp100ff).
What distinguishes these people from the Zero-Negatives is that they systemise to a remarkable degree. The social world lacks rules they can grasp, but the physical world is full of them:
People with Asperger Syndrome have brains that are exquisitely tuned to notice patterns (p.104).Patterns are basic to acting, to predicting, to making things work, to find new ways to make things work. By identifying patterns we can see what is the case and what can be made to be the case. In a sense, seeing patterns allows us to step outside time because we can identify enduring realities. We can systemise by observing patterns, or by observing and operating on them: we can then create new ways of doing things (Pp105ff).
Calling those parts of the brain that can perceive patterns in changing information the “Systemising Mechanism”, Baron-Cohen points out that these are also distributed in a Bell curve, from people with very low systemising ability to those with very high systemising ability. The problem for the hyper-systemisers, is that all they see are patterns, so any unexpected change is toxic. They seek complete control so everything is completely ordered, with any disruption threatening collapse. The upside is that they see patterns no one else has discovered. Such people live in a black-and-white world of things being true or false, never shades of grey. For them truth is precision. And the emotional world does not “fit”. Their systemising mechanism is set so high, there is no place for empathy. But there can be great intellectual and other creativity, as they spot and use patterns no one has previously noticed (Pp112ff).
Classic autism, in Baron-Cohen’s analysis, is this to the max. Autistics have no sense of empathy at all, no sense of other people except as objects. But everything needs to be systematic, patterned or else it becomes toxic change they cannot deal with, that they have no place to “put” it. But without the obsessive systemisers, Baron-Cohen argues, humans would have achieved far less (Pp118ff).
What makes the hyper-systemisers' zero-empathy profoundly different from the Zero-Negative borderlines, antisocials (including psychopaths) and narcissists is that the hyper-systemisers come to morality, not through empathy, but through a very strong sense that behaviour should be governed by rules. They can, indeed, be super-moral because they are so strongly tuned to fairness as a basic principle. So, they are Zero-Positive both in the sense of being often highly creative and in being moral, even hyper-moral, without empathy (Pp 121ff).
Wrestling with cause
All of which is fascinating and enlightening, but still leads to the question of causes. Yes, parental abuse and neglect or otherwise seriously unbalanced upbringing can lead to destruction of empathy coupled with emptiness, rage or entitlement but most people with abusive or otherwise seriously unbalanced upbringings do not develop into borderlines, psychopaths or narcissists. Conversely, some people develop in to Zero-Negatives without suffering such neglect or abuse. If environment is not sufficient explanation, then interaction with genetics (and Baron-Cohen stresses interaction and that genes are just mechanisms for coding proteins) has to be considered (Pp125ff).
But any genetic tendencies to low empathy that manifests in the Zero-Negatives are going to be different genes from the Zero-Positives, given that the latter go down the empathy distribution as they go up the systemising distribution (p.127).
Which brings us, inevitably, to twin studies and which traits are common in identical twins and different in non-identical twins. Baron-Cohen discusses (in a very accessible way) the evidence on genes for aggression, emotional recognition and genes associated with EQ and autistic traits. Baron-Cohen then reminds us that causes are very mixed: genes are not determinative (Pp128ff).
If empathy is in part genetic, there should be evidence for empathy in animals. Which there is, some of it unexpected (in rats, for example)(Pp143ff). Nevertheless:
whatever glimmerings of empathy we can discern (or imagine we discern) in other species, the level of empathy that humans show is qualitatively different from that seen in any other species (p.145).As are our systemising abilities.
The final chapter is Reflections on Human Cruelty, where Baron-Cohen returns to making what people call evil amenable to scientific analysis. (He carefully makes it clear he is not buying into any Dawksian anti-religion agenda.) He summarises the ten new ideas he hopes to introduce into the debate:
we all lie somewhere on the empathy spectrum;I was particularly struck by the comment that:
at one end is zero empathy;
the empathy circuit in the brain will be abnormal in such cases;
treatment of zero empathy should target the empathy circuit;
John Bowlby’s notion of early secure attachment can be usefully characterised as an internal pot of gold able to be drawn upon;
there are genes for empathy;
while most forms of zero empathy are negative, one is positive;
Zero-Positive comes from a mind striving to “step out of time” to see the repeating patterns in nature;
the Zero-Positive mind finds change toxic;
empathy is the most valuable resource (Pp147ff).
Calling the brain types personality disorders leads to debates about whether personality can be changed, especially if personality is defined as a fixed set of traits. Calling them Zero-Negative opens up new avenues for intervention (p.150).Some of his tentative suggestions for treatment echo what Albert J. Bernstein in Emotional Vampires suggests for narcissists.
Baron-Cohen identifies various outstanding puzzles and suggests psychiatry needs to give much more attention to empathy. He considers the alleged “banality of evil”, what an underactive empathy circuit means and the potential for change. Finally, he considers the possibility of super-empathy and empathy as an under-utilised resource (Pp153ff). The book includes an Appendix incorporating questionnaires for measuring EQ in adults and in children (Pp187ff) and a second Appendix listing characteristics of Type B, P and N Zero-Negatives (Pp197ff), a very useful summary.
I found The Science of Evil a very enlightening book. I would particularly recommend it for anyone who is on the autism spectrum or has to deal with someone on the autism spectrum.