Magi Mike's Blog

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Empathy: the Universal Solvent

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Clint Witchalls writes in the UK Independent that a woman and author of two books on childcare, made two girls and a 21 year old woman, whom she had brought from Nigeria, toil for 21 hours a day in her London home and tortured them when their work did not satisfy her. The were her slaves. The youngest girl was 11 years old. She was Lucy Adeniji, an evangelical Christian. The judge sentenced her to eleven years in jail, describing her as…

…an evil woman. I have no doubt you have ruined these two girls’ lives. They will suffer from the consequences of the behaviour you meted out to them for the rest of their lives.

Evil is a loaded word whether used as a noun or an adjective. It relates to the work of the Devil, implying wickedness beyond redemption. In modern American usage it implies that nothing less than death is a suitable punishment. For Bush, the Evil Empire had to be bombed into submission. Its evilness justified the killing and destruction, and so it was that a million or so, mainly innocent Iraqis died. The Taliban in Afghanistan are evil, so they can be bombed in the same way, and pilotless drones can penetrate into Pakistan—another evil place for many Americans—killing innocents, and sometimes an intended target, if we believe that the innocents are not intended as targets.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, argues in Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, that the term evil is unscientific and unhelpful. “Evil” is not an explanation of wrongdoing. Science provides a more satisfactory explanation for evil and that explanation is lack of empathy. Evil is “empathy erosion”. People who lack empathy see others as mere objects. Baron-Cohen writes:

Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.

Baron-Cohen has found that empathy, like IQ, is normally distributed in human populations—that is, it is a bell curve. Most people have a typically human level of empathy—the peak of the bell shape, and less have greater and lesser levels of it. At the extremes, few people have none or excessive amounts of it. Using standard deviation from the mean, the curve can be split into six sections, and these Baron-Cohen lists as the degrees of empathy. Using a questionnaire, everyone can be classified on the EC (Empathy Coefficient) scale. People with zero degrees of empathy will be at one end of the bell curve and those with six degrees of empathy at the other end.

Being at the ends of the curve—extremely high or extremely low empathy scores—does not have to be pathological. Someone with zero degrees of empathy may not be a murderer, torturer or rapist:

Someone who’s very gifted at physics and focused on doing physics might not be interacting much with other people, but they are interacting with the world of objects. They might have low empathy but it’s not interfering. In that respect it’s not pathological and they don’t need a diagnosis. They have found a perfect fit between their mind and the lifestyle that they have.

People with autism or Asperger’s syndrome are zero-positive in Baron-Cohen’s terminology—there is something positive in their lack of empathy. They have zero empathy but are drawn to patterns, regularity and consistency, and so follow rules and regulations like the patterns of civic life. Others are called “zero-negative” because they have no such positive aspects. Zero-negative people are the pathological group—people with borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder (psychopaths) and narcissistic personality disorder. They are capable of inflicting physical and psychological harm on others and are unmoved by the plight of those they hurt.

Zero degrees of empathy means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions. It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don’t work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness. Other people’s thoughts and feelings are just off your radar. It leaves you doomed to do your own thing, in your own little bubble, not just oblivious of other people’s feelings and thoughts but oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view. The consequence is that you believe 100% in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong, or stupid.

Did people with these personality disorders lose their empathy or were they born that way? There is a hormonal link to empathy. One of Baron-Cohen’s studies showed that the more testosterone a foetus has in the womb, the less empathy the child will have when born. Excess testosterone correlates negatively with empathy, and testosterone is obviously more common in men than women. Men therefore score lower on empathy than women. Moreover, another study revealed four genes associated with empathy—one sex steroid gene, one gene related to social emotional behaviour and two associated with neural growth.

Even so, John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, showed that children with “insecure attachment”—a lack of opportunity to form a strong bond with a caregiver—are more at risk of delinquency, personality disorders related to lack of empathy leading to an excessive self centeredness.

Psychopaths and narcissists each are less than one per cent of the population, but many people, close to the majority, supported or at least did not oppose the big atrocities of history like the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, the slave trade, Stalin’s purges, Rwandan genocide, apartheid, and so on. Beliefs seem to be a bigger cause of evil than biology. Negative propaganda spread by church or state about an outgroup thoroughly dehumanises them, leaving them open to inhuman violence. Baron-Cohen says;

Whatever your causes of loss of empathy, it’s the very same empathy circuit that would be involved when you show empathy or fail to show empathy.

So, not everyone who has low empathy will act cruelly. There is more to behavior considered as evil than a zero degree of empathy, and improving empathy by treatment does not seem to have much effect. Psychopaths are notoriously untreatable, as are children who have callousness/unemotional (CU) trait. Increasing the empathy of sex offenders is also difficult. Although zero degrees of empathy seems necessary for callousness, several additional factors and experiences also may lead to cruel or callous acts.

Nevertheless, science is beginning to unravel the mystery of why some people have less empathy than others and the implications are potentially far reaching, not least for the criminal justice system:

Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. It might even have relevance for politics and politicians, so that when we try and resolve conflict, whether it’s domestic conflict or international conflict, issues about empathy might actually be useful. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in the school curriculum empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing it is rarely if ever on the agenda. We can see examples among our political leaders of the value of empathy, as when Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk sought to understand and befriend each other, crossing the divide in Apartheid South Africa, but the same has not yet been achieved between Israel and Palestine, or between Washington and Iraq or Afghanistan. And, for every day that empathy is not employed in such corners of the world, more lives are lost.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Baron-Cohen adds:

The hallmark of a compassionate and civilised society is that we try to understand other people’s actions, we don’t try to simply condemn them. There is even a question about whether a person that commits an awful crime should be in a prison as opposed to a hospital. When people commit crimes, there may be determinants of their behaviour which are outside their control. No one is responsible for their own genes.

The punitive right wing Christian will argue that God gave us free will, and so we are all able to make moral choices. Lack of any sense of empathy is no excuse. But it is rather like expecting someone who is red-green color blind to press the red alert button when danger threatens. There is indeed a choice, but they cannot distinguish the right one. Of course, most neocon Christians are so lacking in empathy themselves that they cannot comprehend that their perpetual habit of attacking foreign people shows their utter lack of empathetic feeling of any kind. They are zero negative—psychopaths—but think they are quite normal, even special in God’s eyes!

Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbour. Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free. And, unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.

Simon Baron-Cohen

Sources: the Independent and the Observer.


Written by mikemagee

10 April, 2011 at 1:03 am

2 Responses

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  1. 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.

    Also, we invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.

    Let’s Find 1 Million People Who Want to Build a Culture of Empathy and Compassion


    Edwin Rutsch

    12 April, 2011 at 5:05 am

  2. Well written post Mike. Very interesting!


    13 April, 2011 at 12:26 pm

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