Scientist seeks to banish evil, boost empathy

LONDON Thu May 5, 2011 3:12pm EDT

Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor Simon Baron-Cohen in an undated photo. REUTERS/Handout

Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor Simon Baron-Cohen in an undated photo.

Credit: Reuters/Handout

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LONDON (Reuters) - Simon Baron-Cohen has been battling with evil all his life.

As a scientist seeking to understand random acts of violence, from street brawls to psychopathic killings to genocide, he has puzzled for decades over what prompts such acts of human cruelty. And he's decided that evil is not good enough.

"I'm not satisfied with the term 'evil'," says the Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor, one of the world's top experts in autism and developmental psychopathology.

"We've inherited this word.. and we use it to express our abhorrence when people do awful things, usually acts of cruelty, but I don't think it's anything more than another word for doing something bad. And as a scientist that doesn't seem to me to be much of an explanation. So I've been looking for an alternative -- we need a new theory of human cruelty."

Baron-Cohen, who is also director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge, has just written a book in which he calls for a kind of rebranding of evil to offer a more scientific explanation for why people kill and torture, or have such great difficulty understanding the feelings of others.

His proposal is that evil be understood as a lack of empathy -- a condition he argues can be measured and monitored and is susceptible to education and treatment.


Baron-Cohen defines empathy in two parts -- as the drive to identify another person's thoughts and feelings, and the drive to respond appropriately to those thoughts and feelings.

It is also, he says, one of the most valuable resources in our world -- one which is currently woefully underused.

"We all have degrees of empathy... but perhaps we are not using it to its full potential," he explained in an interview with Reuters after delivering a lecture in London.

He says erosion of empathy is an important global issue that affects the health of communities, be they small ones like families, or big ones like nations.

If we all used our ability to empathize more, and recognized its value, he says, conflicts such as the decades of tit-for-tat violence between Palestinians and Israelis could be resolved.

"If you think about conflict resolution at the moment, usually we are dependent on diplomatic channels, legal frameworks, or military methods. But all those things operate at a very abstract level and they don't seem to get us very far.

"Empathy is about two people -- two people meeting, getting to know each other and tuning in to what the other person is thinking and feeling."

As an example, Baron-Cohen cites the meeting of minds between Nelson Mandela and the then South African president F. W de Klerk, which helped end apartheid in the early 1990s.

"The progress that came out of just that one relationship -- well, arguably, it broke through where all other methods had failed, and at far less cost in terms of human life," he says.


A Jewish upbringing peppered with tales about the horrors of the Nazis' treatment of Jews and other minorities was early motivation for Baron-Cohen to seek to deconstruct human cruelty

He cites times when his father told him how the Nazis turned Jews into lampshades, or into bars of soap, and a tale about the mother of a family friend whose hands had been severed by Nazi scientists who switched them around and sewed them back on again so that her thumbs were on the outside.

"Today, almost half a century after my father's mind is still exercised by the same single objective: to understand human cruelty," he writes in his book.

In the book, entitled "Zero Degrees of Empathy" in Britain, and "The Science of Evil" in the United States, where it comes out in July, Baron-Cohen seeks to pick apart and define components of empathy -- including hormones, genes, environment, nurture, and early childhood experiences.

Citing decades of scientific research, he says there are at least 10 regions of the brain which make up what he calls the "empathy circuit." When people hurt others, either systematically or fleetingly, parts of that circuit are malfunctioning.

Baron-Cohen also sets out an "empathy spectrum" ranging from zero to six degrees of empathy, and an "empathy quotient" test, whose score puts people on various points along that spectrum.

Drawing a classic bell curve on a graph, Baron-Cohen says that thankfully, the vast majority of humans are in the middle of the bell curve spectrum, with a few particularly attuned and highly empathetic people at the top end.

Psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder sit at the bottom end of the scale -- these people have "zero degrees of empathy."

But rather than labeling them as evil, Baron-Cohen says they should be seen as sick, or "disabled," and we should seek to understand why they have such an empathy deficiency and help them replace it.

Baron-Cohen shies away from saying that psychopaths can be "cured" of extreme behavior, but he argues strongly against locking them up and saying there is nothing society can do.

"I try to keep an open mind. I would never want to say a person is beyond help," he explains. "Empathy is a skill like any other human skill -- and if you get a chance to practice, you can get better at it."

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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Comments (16)
jfinlayson wrote:
I am familiar with Simon Baron-Cohen’s work on autism. What puzzles me is that his thoughts about empathy here don’t seem to mesh well with what we know about autism and cruelty. Impaired empathy is one of the hallmarks of autism. And yet, I can find little if any evidence to suggest that cruelty is any more common in people on the autism spectrum (though it’s easy to find cases of cruelty TOWARD them).

Clearly there is a lot more involved in the formation of a moral sense than just empathy. My own experience with people on the autism spectrum has convinced me of that.

May 05, 2011 1:19pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
Eideard wrote:
Probably should start by interviewing Dick Cheney.

May 05, 2011 3:37pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
oldyeller wrote:
In my opinion, the problem of evil – or lack of empathy – arises not from a lack of “skill” but from a lack knowledge and understanding of the concept of oneness. Of God, if you follow;)

May 06, 2011 6:56am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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