Tuesday, August 23, 2011

empathy and the science of evil

Time | Cambridge psychology professor and leading autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen is best known for studying the theory that a key problem in autistic disorders is "mind blindness," difficulty understanding the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others. He's also known for positing the "extreme male brain" concept of autism, which suggests that exposure to high levels of testosterone in the womb can cause the brain to focus on systematic knowledge and patterns more than on emotions and connection with others. (Oh, and yes, he's also the cousin of British comedian Sacha "Borat" Baron Cohen.)

Baron-Cohen's new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, examines the role of empathy, the ability to understand and care about the emotions of others, not only in autism but in conditions like psychopathy in which lack of care for others leads to antisocial and destructive behavior.

What do you mean when you write about "zero negative" empathy?

Zero empathy refers to people at the extremely low end of the scale. They tend to be people with personality disorders, particularly antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). I focus quite a lot on psychopathy [the extreme form of ASPD] and also on two other personality disorders, borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

The 'negative' is meant to be shorthand for this being negative for the individual but also for the people around them. It's meant to contrast with what I call 'zero positive' empathy, which effectively describes the autistic spectrum.

[Autistic people] struggle with empathy just like zero negatives but it seems to be for very different reasons. I'm arguing that their low empathy is a result of a particular cognitive style, which is attentive to details and patterns or rules, which in shorthand, I call systemizing.

If we think about the autism spectrum as involving a very strong drive to systemize, that can have very positive consequences for the individual and for society. The downside is that when you try to systemize certain parts of the world like people and emotions, those sorts of phenomena are less lawful and harder to systemize. That can lead to having low empathy, almost like a byproduct of strong systemizing.

How do you account for people who are both highly empathetic and highly systematic, such as some of those with Asperger's who are actually oversensitive to the emotions of others?

I've certainly come across subgroups like that. There are people with Asperger's whom I've met who certainly would be very upset to learn they'd hurt another person's feelings. They often have very strong moral consciences and moral codes. They care about not hurting people. They may not always be aware [that they've said something rude or hurtful], but if it's pointed out, they would want to do something about it.

The other side of their moral sense is that they often have a strong sense of justice or fairness. They may have arrived at it through looking for logical patterns rather than necessarily because they can easily identify with someone, however.

People often think that autistic people are dangerous, like psychopaths, when they hear this idea that they have "no empathy."

In a way, that was one of my motivations for writing the book. Low empathy is a characteristic of many different conditions or disorders. Often books are written where they either focus on psychopathy or autism but [not both].

We have to look at them side by side, and when we do that, we see that they are very different and it's important to bring that out.

Is it the case, then, that autistic people are not good at the "mind reading" part of empathy, in terms of predicting people's behavior and feelings, while psychopaths are able to do that but are not able to care?

I think the contrast between these two conditions provides some evidence for that dissociation within empathy. People with psychopathy are very good at reading the minds of their victims. That's probably most clearly seen in deception. You have to be good at mind reading before it would even occur to you want [to deceive someone]. So you can see the cognitive part of empathy as functioning very well, but the fact that they don't have the appropriate emotional response to someone else's state of mind, the feeling of wanting to alleviate distress if someone's in pain, [that suggests that] the affective part of empathy is not functioning normally.


nanakwame said...

New Study Finds Chimpanzees Are Spontaneous Altruists

CNu said...

When I was in daycare circa 1967, my mother was somewhat imperiously summoned by the tall older white director of the daycare center in which I was enrolled and informed that my behavior would have to be moderated. My mother asked the lady what I was doing that needed to be changed and the woman responded, "Craig is arrogant, he acts just like a little white boy!!!"

My mother (who was a very short and feisty black woman with a small afro and cat-eye glasses)  indignantly responded back to her, "how is he supposed to act???"

Never once did my mother back down from such "at bats" on my behalf - and she had more than a few of them with teachers and other authority figures not ready for prime time. Never once did she fail to convert each and every one of these white adult authority figures into close personal friends.

She had an indomitable enthusiasm for such interpersonal missionary work, and I served as an instrument of sorts for producing contexts in which her personal missionary zeal could be put to work.  She loved the idiosyncratic interpersonal interplay, it was a game to her to be savored. Me, on the other hand, as a child in the charge of people in need of missionary remediation, not so much...., that which does not kill you, makes you stronger.

Years later, as a young man on my own after 10 years away from home - she was disappointed to learn that I had no interest whatsoever in engaging with any of the folk from the period of my upbringing. "You just don't like people, do you?"

"nope mama, I don't like them, not one bit at all , and I'm not going to spend one iota of energy to lie about that fact for them - or for you either.....,"

nanakwame said...

My building in lower Manhattan shook from a shock waves from an earthquake that just took place in VA 5.8

CNu said...

hope you have a stylish pair of draws on Nana (^; 

on the serious tip, now might be a very good time to message all your peeps about meeting up at home, in the event that it's not an isolated event.

Manhattan sits on solid bedrock if I recall my geologeography correctly - not a good place to be when the ground is doing its seismic gradient thing...,

nanakwame said...

You little story says much my friend, Auntie always taught me to wear clean draws, for I loved to play till I pissed on myself. Funny part about where  I work: is they are building a rich enclave on land fill that extended to the Sea Port. The building sits right where they filled towards the River.

Tom said...

A lot of things bother me, but what our 'educational process' does to a lot of young talent is one that really makes me want to throw up or kill somebody.    And the teacher is always right.  Always.  

Your mom sounds like an incredible woman.  I can't think of anybody I knew trying to do anti-racist outreach to white folks four years ago, who is still doing it today.   

nanakwame said...

In true education, anything that comes to our hand is as good as a book: the prank of a page- boy, the blunder of a servant, a bit of table talk - they are all part of the curriculum. Michel de Montaigne

The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. John Dewey

Tom said...


That helps me see the argument for your position on radical disintermediation in education.  I must be slow, because I've heard similar stories on the anti-educational system from too many folks.

CNu said...

We have an interesting conundrum for sure nowadays, what with it being impolitique to openly express racial animus, and, a vast compendium of coded work-around methods for doing so.   I believe that there is a hard-core, dyed-in-the-wool 20% who are simply not amenable to change and who will violently resist any effort to impose change. 

Which leaves us with the prospect of this http://youtu.be/yFsAkdOQux0 as the final truth parameter. So..., given the need to fundamentally change and challenge core governance institutions, I believe that the type of conversation and organization prefaced here http://subrealism.blogspot.com/2011/08/proprietary-or-open-source.html represents a universal and democratic process yielding tangible benefit that people with either get with or not - depending on their means, interest, and organization

That's What's Up....,