The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty Info

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A groundbreaking and challenging examination of the
social, cognitive, neurological, and biological roots of psychopathy,
cruelty, and evil

Borderline
personality disorder, autism, narcissism, psychosis: All of these
syndromes have one thing in common--lack of empathy. In some cases, this
absence can be dangerous, but in others it can simply mean a different
way of seeing the world.In The Science of Evil Simon Baron-Cohen,
an award-winning British researcher who has investigated psychology and
autism for decades, develops a new brain-based theory of human cruelty.
A true psychologist, however, he examines social and environmental
factors that can erode empathy, including neglect and
abuse.

Based largely on Baron-Cohen's own research, The
Science of Evil
will change the way we understand and treat human
cruelty.

Average Ratings and Reviews
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4548 Ratings

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Reviews for The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty:

2

Mar 25, 2013

This is more a 2.5 star which as people who follow me know, I truncate, not round up. This book started out very riveting. The theory proposed in this book is about the impacts based on the lack of empathy. There were two interesting concepts of Zero Negative and Zero Positive people. Basically Borderline, Psychopaths and Narcissists all fall under the Zero Negative. Different forms of autism falls under the Zero Positive.

The ideas in this book are interesting to read. What Mr. Baron-Cohen This is more a 2.5 star which as people who follow me know, I truncate, not round up. This book started out very riveting. The theory proposed in this book is about the impacts based on the lack of empathy. There were two interesting concepts of Zero Negative and Zero Positive people. Basically Borderline, Psychopaths and Narcissists all fall under the Zero Negative. Different forms of autism falls under the Zero Positive.

The ideas in this book are interesting to read. What Mr. Baron-Cohen postulates did make me think. I can see his point regarding the how a person with zero negative and zero positive would behave. His research and theories on why these people became w/o empathy dropped me from a 4 star down to a 3 star. Yes, at the beginning, the first two chapters were very good and had me at a 4 star. At chapter 3 I started to lose interest. This is because he correlates a person with zero negative stemming from how their mother raised them. In each example, it was abuse, neglect, etc from a mother. Where is the father in all of this? Were these children through immaculate conception? This immediately made Mr. Baron-Cohen lose respectability in my eyes. To his point, he does point out it is genetics and a combination of nurture which causes a person to be a zero negative. The examples he chose left a bad taste in my mouth and I'm not even a mother.

This "mommy didn't love me enough" or "daddy abandoned me" type of victimized mentality doesn't work for me. Whenever I read this, I consider the writer yet another 1st world privileged philosopher who is only looking at "1st world" problems. Is this judgmental? You betcha. I'm tired of people using their parents as excuses for their behaviour. The victim mentality is detrimental because it focuses on how the person is helpless. I'd rather focus on the series of events which shaped a person and for them to be a survivor.

Now, Mr. Baron-Cohen did indicate while an abusive or neglectful mother isn't the only variable causing a child to become a psychopath, there was a positive correlation. He does also mention that the tie can't be that strong because otherwise, we'd have more psychopaths running around in the world. However, the book is already tainted for me because his victim theory.

Now, there are some concepts in here that are interesting. He explains that it's not that people are evil. It's because their lack of empathy which causes them to behave in manners that don't make sense to the general populace. If people w/o empathy treat the another person as a thing, one can understand how atrocities such as Jew concentration camps and the genocide of Armenians can occur. With this, I agree. That is why the military teaches it's soldiers to call them "targets". It removes the humanity of it.

Still, this book is running at a 3 star, especially the section on the zero positive. I couldn't stop thinking of the Observers from Fringe when he describes the pattern recognition in the zero positives. The highly functioning abilities of systematizing is fascinating. What was disturbing is seeing how I possibly could have been categorized as a zero positive in my early teens.

Chapter 6 is what brought the book down another 1/2 star. While it is nice to think every person can be "rehabilitated" with the single flower nurtured in the desert analogy, it's a fantasy. Here's the problem, in order for rehabilitation, the person must want to rehabilitate. I don't believe people want to change. In fact, I'd like to propose that more than the majority of people prefer not to change. I see it time and time again in both personal and professional life. People don't like to know their flaws and they don't want to improve. They'd rather hide their flaws from themselves and rationalize it is other people. So his idea to help people overcome their "lack of empathy" while noble is a pipe dream in my book. If he had specific methods of how to accomplish this, it would be a different story. Instead, he concludes the book with condemning the death penalty and explaining that "evil" actions of people are not exactly under their control. Instead, it is a combination of chemical, genetic and nurture. We should instead try to help rehabilitate all these people rather than sentence them in jail for years or kill them. These are the fancies of an ivory tower academician untouched by the stubborn people of the real world. ...more
4

Jul 11, 2015

Reading this, I couldn't get out of my head that the author's first cousin is Sasha Baron-Cohen. It was the vision of the ultimate evil mischief-maker that Borat was. Borat in a fluorescent green mankini was behind every word I read. Once seen, never forgotten...



So one of them makes a living out of analysing people and philosophising on whether cruelty and evil is genetic and the other makes his living out of exploiting people with deliberate cruelty that I'm sure his victims think is evil.

I Reading this, I couldn't get out of my head that the author's first cousin is Sasha Baron-Cohen. It was the vision of the ultimate evil mischief-maker that Borat was. Borat in a fluorescent green mankini was behind every word I read. Once seen, never forgotten...



So one of them makes a living out of analysing people and philosophising on whether cruelty and evil is genetic and the other makes his living out of exploiting people with deliberate cruelty that I'm sure his victims think is evil.

I know which I prefer.

Schadenfreude is a very evil sense of humour. Laughing at other people's misfortune is cruel. I wonder if it was inborn in me or I acquired it?

The book was ok, not exhaustive and I didn't agree with the author's conclusions quite often. 3.5 stars. ...more
0

Sep 16, 2011

I can't really review this book, for the simple reason that I do not trust it, and am simply unsure what to believe and what not to. Perhaps my attitude is unfair, but it was these two passages that pushed me into Sgt. Schultz mode:

Some people compare him to the character that Dustin Hoffman played in the film Rain Man, which was based on a real person (Kim Peek) with autism, because... (p. 106, my edition)

Consider that back in 1542 Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet entitled Against the Jews I can't really review this book, for the simple reason that I do not trust it, and am simply unsure what to believe and what not to. Perhaps my attitude is unfair, but it was these two passages that pushed me into Sgt. Schultz mode:

Some people compare him to the character that Dustin Hoffman played in the film Rain Man, which was based on a real person (Kim Peek) with autism, because... (p. 106, my edition)

Consider that back in 1542 Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet entitled Against the Jews (calling on Catholics to attack them) in which he advocated burning synagogues and destroying Jewish homes. (p. 166, my edition)

Kim Peek did not have autism. One need dig no deeper than his NY Times obituary (link) to ferret that fact out. I'd put this down as an honest mistake for most, but Baron-Cohen is supposed to be a world renowned expert on the topic of...autism. Sorry, dude, but you flat-out blew it.

Martin Luther's tedious imbecility on the topic of Jews is certainly true, but how Baron-Cohen got the idea he was trying to incite Catholics against them is not only wrong, it is utterly preposterous. In fact, Luther even took a swipe at Catholics...in the very document Baron-Cohen claims was used "incite" them. Viz:

Similarly among us Christians the papists can no longer pass for the church. For they will not let God be their God, because they refuse to listen to his word, but rather persecute it most terribly, then come along with their empty husks, chaff, and refuse, as they hold mass and practice their ceremonies. And God is supposed to recognize them and look upon them as his true church, ignoring the fact that they do not acknowledge him as the true God, that is, they do not want him to speak to them through his preachers. His word must be accounted heresy, the devil, and every evil. This he will indeed do, as they surely will experience, far worse than did the Jews.

Link to document - The switch from Jews to Catholics occurs at the end of Part II, though it is back to the Jews in Part III.

'Course Luther had a reason to be sore with Catholicism, since he'd been excommunicated and had a Church sanctioned document issued against him personally, wherein he could be killed on sight with neither civil nor religious penalties accruing against his murderer. (A Catholic version of a fatwa? Maybe. But it also seems to be the case that no one ever bothered trying, as best I can tell.) In fact, I'd say you could make a case Luther was saying Catholics, or possibly just the Church hierarchy, was in deeper doo-doo than Jews with God, based upon that last sentence.

Perhaps the two errors cited above are the only two in the book, and perhaps everything else is scholarship so pure it hurts the eyes to glance upon. But I doubt it. In my eyes the entire book took on the mantle of sloppy scholarship after hitting those two easily checked, inexcusable errors. I make no claims at genius or expertise -- quite the contrary! -- so if I'm picking up on wince-worthy passages, how many more might there be in here? Certainly in the Martin Luther bit he cites a source that he himself never bothered reading. (Would he tolerate such a thing from one of his students?)

Anyway, I'm giving the work no rating, since I cannot confidently say that there are sections of this work with which I have little familiarity (and that would be most of it) containing errors similar to the ones I've noted. His level of credibility with me has essentially fallen off a cliff; I'm not certain I'd accept anything he's written without independent verification. Very sad, since I'd previously held him in high regard. ...more
2

Feb 23, 2012

I find that this book could be a lot shorter than it is, for the fact that it is repetitive and offers a lot of hypothesis and questions rather than answers or true discoveries. It regurgitates what has already been mentioned about narcissism, autism, antisocial disorder, and borderline disorder. I am not an expert on psychological studies but it appeared to only state what has already been stated and suggest that there are links between those disorders and levels of empathy in certain I find that this book could be a lot shorter than it is, for the fact that it is repetitive and offers a lot of hypothesis and questions rather than answers or true discoveries. It regurgitates what has already been mentioned about narcissism, autism, antisocial disorder, and borderline disorder. I am not an expert on psychological studies but it appeared to only state what has already been stated and suggest that there are links between those disorders and levels of empathy in certain individuals and how that could potentially cause them to be inclined towards evil ways. Not that I think this is a bad link to be studying, but it basically stated that they are not sure if there is a link between the two and was so vague that I felt that this book accomplished nearly nothing. You are left with just as many questions if not more than when you went in and while it may be good in some cases to write something that causes society to question something that is being under-questioned, I read the book to get answers and data on proof or near-proof to actual conclusions.

However the book was very interesting for about 5 pages when it discussed the discoveries about empathy that were observed in animals such as mice and monkeys.

I felt that a more interesting question isn't how Hitler or certain people in history could be so evil but rather, how they were able to get so many 'normal' or 'common' people to commit such horrendous acts when they were seemingly healthy psychologically. The fact that Hitler may have been messed up psychologically and that that could have contributed to his demise is not ground breaking, earth shattering information that I couldn't have gathered on my own.

It was interesting but I don't know that I would recommend it because I feel reading it came quite close to a waste of my time. Especially when you consider how many other books are out there to read and all the books you could be reading instead of this one. ...more
5

Jun 22, 2011

I met Simon Baron Cohen in 2004 as part of my exploration of the role of empathy (and lack of it or autism) in my field of conflict research. He is an extraordinary person to discuss these issues, with and his knowledge and compassion for the children he treats for development disorders strongly evident. His book 'The Essential Difference' played a major role in the evolution of my theory of 'induced autism' in conflict.

His latest book extends his thinking into the role of zero degrees of I met Simon Baron Cohen in 2004 as part of my exploration of the role of empathy (and lack of it or autism) in my field of conflict research. He is an extraordinary person to discuss these issues, with and his knowledge and compassion for the children he treats for development disorders strongly evident. His book 'The Essential Difference' played a major role in the evolution of my theory of 'induced autism' in conflict.

His latest book extends his thinking into the role of zero degrees of empathy in the commission of acts of extreme evil. Since I met him, neuroscience has moved on rapidly and his latest book brings up to date the 10 areas of the brain that seem most implicated in empathy, or its lack, and also the half a dozen or so genes whose expression also contributes a genetic dimension to empathy or its absence. Identical twin research suggests that empathy has about 60% heritability, but the sample size and peer review process is probably not complete for that to be taken as proven.

I literally read this book in one sitting (despite the trans-Atlantic jet lag) and would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the problem of evil from a scientific viewpoint, and especially if you are interested in reducing it! Though the author warns at the onset: don't read this book if you are sensitive to descriptions of appalling evil, as that is how he starts out defining what he is trying to understand, though there is far more to the book than this. He systematically un-picks the different empathy deficiencies of borderline personality, psychopath and narcissistic disorders and how they have at their extreme zero degrees of empathy. His accounts of the genetic and developmental causes of these disorders is strongly evidence based, though in the case of extreme narcissism the research is so far limited.

He also builds on his work in The Essential Difference on the systematizer/empathizer contrast and provides a convincing case that many of those with zero empathy are not borderline, psychopath or narcissistic but in fact use their strong systematizing to build very rigid moral structures. Extreme systematizers also have given us most of our science and technology.

The only weak part of the book is that Simon stops too soon and his phenomenal ability to develop ways to address issues of autism is not fully deployed. He ends with ten steps to increase empathy in the world and even grow in those with zero degrees. I would have loved another full chapter on where now. ...more
4

Jul 18, 2017

4 Informative-Stars!
There are some books that you read with your mouth open and all of your emotions displayed across your face. This is one of those books. Be warned, 'The Science of Evil' will make you disgusted and enlightened at the same time. What dug into my heart even more were the real life photos of acts of terror. It's gut-wrenching to see what people are capable of. It's unspeakable.

First Chapter:
Nazi scientists severed a woman's hands and then sewed them back Switched. So her 4 Informative-Stars! ☆★☆★
There are some books that you read with your mouth open and all of your emotions displayed across your face. This is one of those books. Be warned, 'The Science of Evil' will make you disgusted and enlightened at the same time. What dug into my heart even more were the real life photos of acts of terror. It's gut-wrenching to see what people are capable of. It's unspeakable.

First Chapter:
★ Nazi scientists severed a woman's hands and then sewed them back Switched. So her thumbs on the outside of her hands.
Holy F#%K!!!
★ Some Nazi held experiments to see if people could survive being submerged in freezing water up to 3 hours. Double F#%K!!
★ Rebel soldiers ordering women to bash their children's heads into poles until they died to survive another day. Jesus, F#%king F#%K!!!!!
★ Nazis were not to first to kill thousands of people. The Turks killed over 1.5 million Armenians in 1890. They weren't even allowed to testify in court as witnesses, let alone pled their case. Did i say Fff#%kk!?!?!!!
★ In 1994, in Democratic Republic of Congo rebels attacked a village and forced a woman's son to have sex with her while they watched and then they shot him in front of her. Then each one of the soldiers raped the woman while her husband was forced to watch and then he was shot as well in front of the woman. Last but not least, they left her staring at her burning house and took her 3 daughters away from her. She hasn't heard from her daughters since. I cant even.... F... :o

The scariest part, these cruel people who did these operations were doctors. People we are brought up to trust, performing unethical experiments on innocent lives.
And soldiers that are there to protect.

I found it interesting how the author examined further into what makes people "evil". Evil is a broad definition that is used to describe many different people. He substituted evil with the word empathy or lack of empathy. Suddenly, character traits were more easily defined and their actions were explained. Some had lack of empathy because of their desire to protect and were blinded, others because of revenge or hate and in some instances, pure hunger. The things you will do when you've been starved for days, and pure instinct takes over are unfathomable. Emotions are dissected....

“When our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the "I" mode. In such a state we relate only to things or to people as if they were just things.”

Each chapter gave me goosebumps. I learned things that shocked me to the core! I had so many chills that i had to take breaks just to collect myself. Im grateful to learn about the human mind and how we as a society have evolved but some of these atrocities just made me sick. It was like reading horror story after horror story.

★ Fun Fact: Marilyn Monroe's real name was Norma Jean Mortenson. Norma?! Really? ...huh. I guess I'm the only one who's a huge fan of Psycho. ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

★ I never knew that Marilyn Monroe was a child of divorced parents and a mother who was in the psychiatric ward most of her life. She went from foster care to foster care. When she was 11 and she was sexually molested by her stepfather! What?! She first got married when she was 16 to her neighbor to get out of foster care. She remarried 2 more times to all failed marriages. She was in and out of psychiatric clinics like her mother and attempted suicide three times! She succeeded killing herself, overdosing in 1962. Whoa...

I think my biggest take away after reading this book is how empathy is related to the brain. I never knew that certain parts of our brain control our lack or over abundance of the trait with hormones and proteins. It is really interesting.

(-1★) I took away a star for the sole reason of some of the tests mentioned. 'Bla bla bla, this test shows this information according to this doctor and this many patients, bla bla bla, but it is not conclusive; or it was not proven; or the patients life history was never taken into account or recorded....etc.' ☠ -Wait, WHAT? Why would you mention test results if they are not 99% true or even taken correctly?! I felt like my time was wasted reading those sentences over and over again.

When i read a science or psychology book i want concrete hard proof of the evidence your basing your topic on. Not hearsay.
Its like saying "1+1=11, because Eddie from the store told me, but it needs more working out." Ugh!!!! ☠

I liked the statement: "Narcissists have monologues, not dialogues."

During the Nazi reign, people who helped gather up the jews did not consider themselves part of the killing, instead they justified their actions by making statements like this...

➤ Person A: "I simply had the list of Jews in my municipality. I did not round up the Jews, but I did pass this list on when requested to do so."

➤ Person B: "I was told to go to these addresses, arrest these people, and take them to the train station. That's all I did."

➤ Person C: "My job was to open the doors of the train—that was it."

➤ Person D: "My job was to direct the prisoners onto the train."

➤ Person E: "My job was to close the doors, not to ask where the train was going or why.”

➤ Person F: "My job was simply to drive the train."
[through all the other small links in the chain that could lead to . . .]
➤ Person Z: "My job was simply to turn on the showers out of which the poison gas was emitted.”

All in all, there is a lot of important information in this book about the brain, people's personalities and upbringings. T discusses the how they impact one another and how to judge each one. This book made me dissect the word 'evil' as a word used to describe someone and dive further into what made them do the act. I enjoyed the book and appreciated the message. I agree that empathy or lack of empathy should hold a bigger part in psychology than it does. :) ...more
2

Sep 15, 2012

This is a disappointing book. The author overstates the case for empathy. "Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in the world," he writes. Since uncaring leads to cruelty and inappropriate social responses, he argues that we need more empathy. If it were as simple as asserting that it be so.

The author defines empathy as only a good thing as far as social relationships are concerned, but some have argued that it is this capacity to identify with what goes on in others that gives sadists This is a disappointing book. The author overstates the case for empathy. "Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in the world," he writes. Since uncaring leads to cruelty and inappropriate social responses, he argues that we need more empathy. If it were as simple as asserting that it be so.

The author defines empathy as only a good thing as far as social relationships are concerned, but some have argued that it is this capacity to identify with what goes on in others that gives sadists pleasure or possibly underlies homophobia. Still, we know that the author doesn't mean that kind of empathy. He says the good kind of empathy varies across a range (the empathy bell curve) from zero to much, and argues that both environmental and genetic factors interact in ways that determine where one falls within that range. That suggests we can work on enhancing empathy (teaching, good habits, etc.), but it also suggests that a good part of human kind is inherently predisposed to anti-social behavior.

Then there are the empirical measures the author uses for empathy. Empirical suggests scientific, but the measures seem subjective and likely miss the essence of what he's after. Among his top ten measures, he asks whether one enjoys caring for others, whether it's hard to know what to do in a social situation, and whether it bothers one to be late meeting a friend. It's common enough to not really "enjoy caring" for others, but that's not the same as wishing them ill and acting to harm. It could be the awkwardness of a social situation is due to boredom or frustration with superficiality. As for lateness, does this mean a good part of the non western world is not empathetic? If these questions seem nit picky, look at these measures from another perspective: Are some "non-empathetic" sociopaths good at manipulation because they are acutely aware of how others will react to what they do?

Something more fundamental is missing from this discussion of "the science of evil." The widespread cruelty throughout history by leaders and collective groupings of people points in the direction of deeper biological factors that override empathy. These, for example, may involve the role of alpha leaders and their followers, and tribal dynamics that result in the need to hate, demonize and dehumanize. ...more
3

Nov 09, 2015

Interesting book. That's about all I can really say. I don't find this as practical for the "layperson" as some books on the idea of evil and the human brain and mind are. Still you may find it draws you in a bit.

I think how this one hits you will depend on your own bent and interests. I picked it up after reading a few books on Psychopathy. That's not exactly what's discussed here, but it is interesting.
4

Jul 05, 2018

An attempt to explain evil from an empirical standpoint rather than an ideological or a philosophical one. The author is only dealing with a certain type of evil; not natural evil (things like earthquakes and flooding) but moral evil (things like murder and rape). In a move parallel to Augustine of Hippo, he defines evil in terms of privation. Just as one might define darkness as the absence of light, Augustine defined evil as the absence of good, and Baron-Cohen defines it as the absence of An attempt to explain evil from an empirical standpoint rather than an ideological or a philosophical one. The author is only dealing with a certain type of evil; not natural evil (things like earthquakes and flooding) but moral evil (things like murder and rape). In a move parallel to Augustine of Hippo, he defines evil in terms of privation. Just as one might define darkness as the absence of light, Augustine defined evil as the absence of good, and Baron-Cohen defines it as the absence of empathy. There is a continuum between light and darkness. People are not either staring directly into the sun or trapped in a lightless grotto deep beneath the earth at any given moment (I would be remiss if I didn't point out that the fact that a person who is staring at the sun and a person trapped in a lightless room are equally blind serves as a useful metaphor for the dangers of extremism). One can parallel the light/dark continuum with the continuum between empathy and a lack of empathy in the psychology of individual human beings. It is by using this continuum that the author tries to better understand human evil. The author considers two ways of relating to the world, the Ich-Du (I-you) mode of being and the Ich-Es (I-it) mode of being. In the first mode of being you connect with another person as the end in itself. A highly empathetic person would operate in this mode of being since they would have the ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. In the second mode of being you connect with another person as a means to an end. They are not a person so much as an object to be used in the pursuit of some purpose. A person without empathy operates entirely in the Ich-Es mode of being. People are things. The author writes: 'Treating other people as if they were just objects is one of the worst things you can do to another human being, to ignore their subjectivity, their thoughts and feelings.' As the old chest nut goes, you can love people and use things or love things and use people.

A mistake we might make is thinking once again that these are binary options. The author uses the helpful metaphor of a light switch. It is not a matter of whether we are in the off position (Ich-Es) or the on position (Ich-Du) because people are not like traditional light switches that must be entirely in one of these states or the other. They are more like dimmer switches. Empathy erosion is like a person who has the dimmer switch turned low, either as a temporary state or as a permanent trait. In his words: 'I'm going to argue that some people are at the low end of this empathy dimension in a potentially permanent way, and that some (but not all) of those at this extreme end are whom we might call “evil” or cruel. That is, they never had much empathy and they may never. Others may be at the low end of the empathy dimension because they experienced a transient shutting down of their empathy as the result of their current situation. That is, they had empathy and lost it, however briefly. But however you get to this low point on the empathy scale, the result can be the same. At that point you become capable of dehumanizing other people, of turning other people into objects, and this can have tragic consequences.'

The author rightly points out that saying people engage in certain behaviours because they are evil is a sort of non-explanation: 'Why did the murderer kill the innocent child? Because he was evil. Why did the terrorist become a suicide bomber? Because she was evil.' The empirical approach he advocates is not content to merely slap a label on this type of behaviour and be done with it but is an attempt to understand how some people are capable of behaving in ways that other people find abhorrent. To do this he substitutes the phrase 'empathy erosion' where we would usually place the word evil. He then asks two questions: 1) What is empathy? 2) Why do some people have less than others?

He writes: 'Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.' You actively step out of your perspective and to the best of your ability step into the perspective of the other. Here is a real world example the author gives:

'I sat in Alyth Gardens synagogue in Golders Green in north London last year. Two men went up on the stage. 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 Aleikem.”

I was shocked: Here were two fathers, from different sides of the political divide, united by their grief and now embracing each other's language. How had they met? Moishe had taken the opportunity offered by a charity called the Parents Circle for Israelis and Palestinians to make free phone calls directly into each other's homes to express their empathy to bereaved parents on the other side of the barbed-wire fence. Ahmed described how he had been at home in Gaza one day when the phone rang. It was Moishe, at that time a stranger in Jerusalem, who had taken that brave first step. They both openly wept on the phone. Neither had ever met or spoke to someone from the other community, but both told the other they knew what the other was going through.'

The book delves a fair bit into the brain based aspect of empathy, identifying ten areas of the brain that are associated with the ability to empathize with other people. Much of this area of research is based on the behaviour of people that have suffered damage to these areas of the brain. The author also examines studies on whether there are correlations between how active any of these areas are and the level of empathy a particular individual demonstrates.

Four types of non-empathetic people are examined in depth, three that the author identifies as level 0 negative personalities (borderline personality disorder, psychopathy, and narcissism) and one level 0 positive personality (Asperger's Syndrome). The author then goes on to consider the role of genetic and environmental factors in how empathetic any particular individual is. As is often the case in behavioural studies, comparing the behaviour of identical and non-identical twins is considered, and also whether adopted children end up sharing more in common with their birth parents or their adopted parents. The book also looks at empathy in the animal kingdom.

The book ends with a number of questions for further study: Are evil acts always the result of early environmental factors (emotional deprivation) or biological factors (genes and/or hormones, neurotransmitters, etc.) affecting the empathy circuit? If empathy is missing in childhood or adolescence, can it be developed later? The role of biology and environment in fashioning the self you are is an interesting question in itself. It is kind of hard to deny they play a very large role in making you the self that you are but a further question is this: can the self that you are then turn around and take a conscious hand in fashioning who it is? I am inclined to say yes.

I mostly agree with what the author has to say in this book. The biggest problem I have with it is that though it is only a partial explanation, it is presented in a way that lulls you into thinking it is a complete explanation. One could easily imagine situations where it is your experiencing empathy for another person that could lead to morally ambiguous actions so whatever empirical approach you might want to take to understanding evil, there are clearly more facets to it than a lack of empathy. The fact that he spends a portion of the book discussing non-empathic people that are not malevolent demonstrates that there are other factors to consider. Evil requires a better explanation than the mere absence of something. It clearly has positive (in the sense of existent) qualities of its own. To steal a metaphor from Dorothy L. Sayers, the categories are not Hamlet and non-Hamlet, they are Hamlet and anti-Hamlet. ...more
5

Nov 09, 2014

Didn't get to read all of this because I originally got it out of the library to complete a degree assignment, but then found myself totally captivated by it. I think I only missed out two chapters in the end but ohh boy, this is one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read, smartly written, entertaining and very informative! It even debunks to an extent the idea that those with autism spectrum disorder and psychopathy don't have any empathy, rather, they both lack a specific type of empathy Didn't get to read all of this because I originally got it out of the library to complete a degree assignment, but then found myself totally captivated by it. I think I only missed out two chapters in the end but ohh boy, this is one of the best non-fiction books I've ever read, smartly written, entertaining and very informative! It even debunks to an extent the idea that those with autism spectrum disorder and psychopathy don't have any empathy, rather, they both lack a specific type of empathy (autism cognitive empathy, psychopaths affective empathy) which has vastly different effects on the brain and behaviour - a really interesting conclusion rooted in evidence with potentially huge ramifications if it is correct.
I found myself buzzing with interest and excitement while reading this. Would 100% recommend to anyone interested in empathy, cruelty, autism and personality disorders. Definitely don't need to go into this with any psychology knowledge either because it's so well written, engaging and accessible. Hopefully I can go back and read those last few chapters one day. :)

Favourite Quote:

'This suggests people with Asperger Syndrome are the mirror image of those with Type P: Psychopaths have intact cognitive empathy but reduced affective empathy, whilst people with Asperger Syndrome have intact affective empathy but reduced cognitive empathy. The result is that people with Asperger Syndrome do care about others, whilst struggling to 'read' them. Those with Type P don't care about others, whilst 'reading' them with ease.' ...more
2

Apr 06, 2013

2.5 stars, rounded down. A bit too dry. However the tiny part on Nazi atrocities at the beginning made me cry in public :(
1

Feb 08, 2016

Holy fear-mongering, Batman!
Never have I read a book more toxic for the attitude towards the mentally ill. This book teaches the readers to be afraid of people who suffer really awful things already!!
Not only are the facts in this book wrong (bpd patients not having empathy? Are you kidding me right now???), they are incredibly intolerant and hurtful. The last thing the mentally ill need are outsiders telling them they're awful, unethical, evil people the way this book argues. If you value the Holy fear-mongering, Batman!
Never have I read a book more toxic for the attitude towards the mentally ill. This book teaches the readers to be afraid of people who suffer really awful things already!!
Not only are the facts in this book wrong (bpd patients not having empathy? Are you kidding me right now???), they are incredibly intolerant and hurtful. The last thing the mentally ill need are outsiders telling them they're awful, unethical, evil people the way this book argues. If you value the respect of anyone with a mental illness, please do not touch this book. ...more
5

Nov 07, 2014

Damn i DIDNT REALISE A BOOK COULD GIVE ME A DEEP INSIGHT IN MY SELF
this book made me realise that I may have Borderline Personality Disorder


*wanting to be a soulmate and yet fearing intimacy, believing she will
lose her identity and cease to exist in relationships
*Impulsivity potentially self-destructive
*Extreme mood swings, from depression to anger to elation and enthusiasm,
each mood lasting only a few hours
*Inability to control anger
*Suicidal threats
*Identity confusion
*Extreme emptiness Damn i DIDNT REALISE A BOOK COULD GIVE ME A DEEP INSIGHT IN MY SELF
this book made me realise that I may have Borderline Personality Disorder


*wanting to be a soulmate and yet fearing intimacy, believing she will
lose her identity and cease to exist in relationships
*Impulsivity potentially self-destructive
*Extreme mood swings, from depression to anger to elation and enthusiasm,
each mood lasting only a few hours
*Inability to control anger
*Suicidal threats
*Identity confusion
*Extreme emptiness loneliness or boredom

AND NARCISSISM

a grandiose sense of self-importance
a preoccupation with fantasies of success and power, beauty,
or ideal love
a belief that he is “special” and should associate with people
who are also of high status
a need for excessive admiration
a sense of entitlement
a style of exploiting others
a complete lack of empathy
an envy of others or a belief others are envious of him
arrogant attitudes ...more
4

Jul 26, 2012

Not an agonizing recitation of evil acts, this book is about scientific studies to determine why some people are so lacking in empathy.

The environment vs. genetics issues are explored and how a deadly mixture of both may create the monsters who engage in cruel acts. But the book also explores the minds of people who seem to lack empathy, but do not commit evil acts, because they have a very structured moral code. (People who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.)

As the mother of a 27-year-old Not an agonizing recitation of evil acts, this book is about scientific studies to determine why some people are so lacking in empathy.

The environment vs. genetics issues are explored and how a deadly mixture of both may create the monsters who engage in cruel acts. But the book also explores the minds of people who seem to lack empathy, but do not commit evil acts, because they have a very structured moral code. (People who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.)

As the mother of a 27-year-old man who has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, I was struck by how much my son DIDN'T resemble the Asperger's Syndrome individuals Baron-Cohen discusses: my son has clearly shown empathy for others on a number of occasions. So either there's a broad spectrum within Asperger's, too, or - my son has something other than Asperger's.

Baron-Cohen's argument that anorexics fall somewhere in the spectrums mentioned above, because they show a lack of empathy for their anguished parents, failed to persuade me of its correctness. ...more
0

Jun 14, 2011

Yet another book to add on evil. I probably should start a separate shelf.

A collection of reviews —
• Read the informative New York Times review: From Hitler to Mother Teresa: 6 Degrees of Empathy .

• Another more personal review is at the GuardianUK, subtitled A book that gets to the heart of man's inhumanity to man .

• The Wall Street Journal is mildly critical: The Problem With 'Evil' .

• And one more from The Economist: Medical diagnosis of malfeasance .

For the record, my Empathy Quotient, Yet another book to add on evil. I probably should start a separate shelf.

A collection of reviews —
• Read the informative New York Times review: From Hitler to Mother Teresa: 6 Degrees of Empathy .

• Another more personal review is at the GuardianUK, subtitled A book that gets to the heart of man's inhumanity to man .

• The Wall Street Journal is mildly critical: The Problem With 'Evil' .

• And one more from The Economist: Medical diagnosis of malfeasance .

For the record, my Empathy Quotient, per the self-administered test at Baron-Cohen's website, is 45. (Solidly in the average range: "most women score about 47 and most men score about 42").

Update:

• The GuardianUK’s page also had to a link to a podcast of an interview with Simon Baron-Cohen, which I finally got around to listening to a few weeks ago. About twenty-one minutes. Very good; download here: Science Weekly Extra: Simon Baron-Cohen on empathy and evil .

• That brought me back to the GuardianUK website, where I noticed a review second essay, tying in a related book. Subtitled two new books about the science of empathy, Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen, and Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley et al.
­ ...more
4

Sep 21, 2011

I picked up this book because the dust jacket mentioned the role of mirror neurons in how people understand one another. Baron-Cohen argues that mirror neurons are only a small part of a more elaborate system he calls the empathy circuit. Using a questionnaire (a copy of which is in the book) that measures empathy, what he calls the empathy quotient, he focuses on those who measure zero. As you might anticipate, psychopaths are on this end of the scale. What is interesting is that he also places I picked up this book because the dust jacket mentioned the role of mirror neurons in how people understand one another. Baron-Cohen argues that mirror neurons are only a small part of a more elaborate system he calls the empathy circuit. Using a questionnaire (a copy of which is in the book) that measures empathy, what he calls the empathy quotient, he focuses on those who measure zero. As you might anticipate, psychopaths are on this end of the scale. What is interesting is that he also places borderline personalities and the narcissistic personalities there as well. He calls this group zero negative, meaning, they measure zero in empathy and have negative personality traits. Naturally, there are a range of scores that can be found in these groups and, when you look at the questions used in the instrument and try to imagine someone who scores zero, you know they are, thankfully, rare. Perhaps more interesting though, he describes those with Asperger's syndrome and autism as zero positive, meaning that though they have zero empathy, they do not generally hurt others. Rather, they choose to avoid social situations altogether. They may be strong in something he calls the systemizer quotient meaning they are able to see patterns where others don't.

These classifications are underpinned by reference to neuroimaging studies that have focused on those areas of the brain that have been found to be involved in empathy. Those who score low or zero in empathy have underactive empathy pathways as demonstrated by these studies.


The framework described here leads to lots of questions: what problems are encountered by people who score very high on the EQ? What environmental cues are important in encouraging and empathic state (as distinct from trait)? This is especially interesting in the health care setting where, I expect we have many situations that blunt people who are normally empathic. However, is it always useful to be very empathic? If a surgeon were to be highly empathic, would he/she be able to do their job? ...more
4

Jun 12, 2011

I have approached writing this book review several times and have hesitated ...This book was extremely difficult for me to review because it is a nice, neat, concise little package, which I felt was rather suspect considering the daunting topic of providing an explanation for human cruelty. I expected complexity, but I almost feel as if Baron-Cohen has provided a simple “no brainer”: people who are capable of cruelty lack empathy.

Honestly though, he goes a little further and he groups his I have approached writing this book review several times and have hesitated ...This book was extremely difficult for me to review because it is a nice, neat, concise little package, which I felt was rather suspect considering the daunting topic of providing an explanation for human cruelty. I expected complexity, but I almost feel as if Baron-Cohen has provided a simple “no brainer”: people who are capable of cruelty lack empathy.

Honestly though, he goes a little further and he groups his findings into neat categorizations, which are admittedly quite intriguing. He talks specifically about personality “disorders”, three in particular, and how they all involve impaired empathy as one of their traits. Baron-Cohen writes neatly and tidily and presents his theories very simply and attainably for the lay reader.

I suppose my real difficulty, in the process of creating a review, was accepting his theories. At best, I think what Baron-Cohen has done is put the available pieces of a puzzle together and extrapolated what was missing, to create a partial picture of what is occurring on a societal and personal level with regards to people with impaired empathy. I think what is missing is the complete science, the complete understanding of the intricacies of the internal functions of the brain. Baron-Cohen layers in some psychology with the explanation of each “zero empathy” case, what makes them unique, and summarizes his theories will a philosophical final chapter. Nice, neat, right? The problem is that which is classified as “borderline” is neither simple, neat nor concise. There are borderlines who do not harm others in the extreme way as in the singular example. There are also psychopaths who exude empathy, enough in fact to lure and trap victims. They ARE reading people, whether their neural activity is demonstrating so or not. Meanwhile people with Asperger’s Syndrome are kind of the anomaly, there is a distinction making them zero empathy positive: morals. Yet, the very existence of morals demands an understanding of empathy. Morals are social rules; social rules are learned or understood mainly through empathy. Or so it would seem?

In addition to categorizing minds and personalities along a spectrum of empathy, Baron-Coen goes further to suggest that conventional systems of justice should not be applicable to certain kinds of zero empathy behavior, especially when the person committing the offense suffers from conditions such as autism. Baron-Cohen suggests an inherent lack of moral agency in a person suffering from autism, based on the fact that in an autistic mind the empathy circuit had been negatively impacted. Without empathy autistic people might be inclined to commit socially inappropriate acts. However, in his view they should not be held responsible according to classical retributive justice systems because if their mind is impaired they lack the requisite moral agency to know how to better behave.

This argument is of course interlaced with the debate on free will and human consciousness. Baron-Cohen clearly acknowledges this and also the fact that, in the case of grave crime, restoring a sense of justice is crucial for ensuring societal peace.

The final issue which was not addressed much in the book, are the evolutionary advantages and disadvantages of possessing empathy or lacking empathy. While some theorists argue that empathy is at the root of human survival, others believe that the capability for switching off the empathy circuit could be to an evolutionary advantage.

One thing was clear when reading Baron-Cohen’s sensitive writing on the subject; he is a scientist, a systematized thinker, with a clear and genuine function of empathy. I learned much from this book and it is recommended reading for any interested in psychology and neuroscience. ...more
4

Sep 05, 2018

Interesting details concerning the make-up of evil inherent in the human species, especially dealing with empathy, or as touched on in this book, the lack thereof. This book broke down the science of the condition, explaining how that we are all not, either good or bad, but rather in measure, we are all a mixture of both. I'm reminded of the cartoon I used to see where every person has an invisible little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other, each trying to persuade us to do Interesting details concerning the make-up of evil inherent in the human species, especially dealing with empathy, or as touched on in this book, the lack thereof. This book broke down the science of the condition, explaining how that we are all not, either good or bad, but rather in measure, we are all a mixture of both. I'm reminded of the cartoon I used to see where every person has an invisible little angel on one shoulder and a little devil on the other, each trying to persuade us to do either right or wrong.

Simon used a scale, breaking down the difference between those who only had minor deficiencies in expressing empathy and those who lack it completely. A lot of the signs are characteristics that I recognize in people I have known throughout my life; some to a greater extent than others. I thought the part that was most disturbing was the realization that those who are at the lowest scale in lacking empathy can not only be extremely heartless and cruel, but in most cases, do not even realize that they are being that way. Their brains are not wired to make the distinction. A person who could hurt, or possibly even kill, for whatever exaggerated reason and not feel the slightest regret or even understand that what they have done is wrong, is about as scary a monster as I can imagine.
Over all this was an informative read on the subject, and I have a much clearer understanding now of my ex-wife. ...more
4

Dec 11, 2011

Simon Baron-Cohen addresses the question of evil with an emphasis on moving away from biblical or religious theories towards scientific and psychiatric explanations. Baron-Cohen argues that much of what can constitute cruelty towards others is a result of a lack of empathy, that is, lacking feeling towards the victim and seeing them more or less as objects. In the book, Baron-Cohen argues that empathy exists on a spectrum, and while anyone can lack empathy for a brief moment, the book argues Simon Baron-Cohen addresses the question of evil with an emphasis on moving away from biblical or religious theories towards scientific and psychiatric explanations. Baron-Cohen argues that much of what can constitute cruelty towards others is a result of a lack of empathy, that is, lacking feeling towards the victim and seeing them more or less as objects. In the book, Baron-Cohen argues that empathy exists on a spectrum, and while anyone can lack empathy for a brief moment, the book argues that three personality types which are borderline, narcissistic, and antisocial have zero empathy and seem prone towards act of cruelty. Baron-Cohen then looks at physiological, genetic, and environmental factors that lead to such personalities and takes a look at how such people's lack of empathy might lead to behaviors that might be deemed as evil. The book, then, complicates things by looking beyond such personalities and looking at people on the autistic spectrum, who lack empathy, but are not necessarily prone to cruelty. The book, moreover, also looks at cruel actions that seem to have been perpetrated by groups or individuals that do not have either of the three personality types.

I was fascinated by the discussion of the book and believe that its strength lies largely in its discussion, observations, and philosophy towards the concept of empathy and how it serves to encourage evil and cruel behavior. If anything, I believe, that the book could have continued and expanded its discussion, but a useful foundation on the topic was presented, and it will undoubtedly push readers to ask further questions regarding the complicated conceptualization of evil in humanity. ...more
5

Jul 05, 2012

The Science of Evil
S. Baron-Cohen
Basic Books, 2011

What is evil? This is a question that is addressed in the first chapter of this book. The point of view is adopted to discuss this from the standpoint of a lack of empathy. In the second chapter, empathy is discussed as if it were a measurable characteristic, with a variation in the human population characterized by a “bell-shaped curve”. The concept of “empathy quotient”, or EQ, is introduced, and we are introduced to a questionnaire whose The Science of Evil
S. Baron-Cohen
Basic Books, 2011

What is evil? This is a question that is addressed in the first chapter of this book. The point of view is adopted to discuss this from the standpoint of a lack of empathy. In the second chapter, empathy is discussed as if it were a measurable characteristic, with a variation in the human population characterized by a “bell-shaped curve”. The concept of “empathy quotient”, or EQ, is introduced, and we are introduced to a questionnaire whose results can be assessed quantitatively, and which can be used to measure empathy. With respect to this questionnaire, the author refers to a research paper, by S. Baron-Cohen and S. Wainwright, entitled “The Empathy Quotient (EQ): An investigation of adults with Asperger Syndrome or high-functioning autism, and normal sex differences” from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, vol. 34, pages 163 – 175 (2004). Prof. Baron-Cohen asserts that empathy can be studied from a neuroscience perspective, and that there are specific brain structures, which he refers to as the “empathy circuit” that relate to empathy. He calls EQ results that are very low, zero degrees of empathy.

Prof. Baron-Cohen considers what it would mean to associate a lack of empathy with evil. First, he wishes to show that the brain regions of the empathy circuit are noticeably low-functioning in people who can be identified as having very low EQs. Next, he seeks to clarify the psychology of the people who score very low EQs. Does this psychology relate to acts of cruelty? In addition, he wishes to study this from the medical point of view as a possible pathology. Is very low EQ inevitably associated with human cruelty? This is a very important question because, of course, EQ can be objectively measured. The author explores this question in chapters 3 and 4 of his book. In Chap. 3 he outlines evidence that couples with very low EQ that indicates the possibility of making certain correspondences with violence, aggression, and possible acts of cruelty in human beings. In Chapter 4, he points to a whole category of individuals with low EQs who, far from behaving cruelly, seem to display quite gentle, humane and non-aggressive dispositions. It is this categorical type of association in which he is interested. People with certain identifiable psychological types, and with correlated very low EQs can be studied scientifically, for example, by using the methods of neuroscience.

Evidently, these identifiable psychological types have been sculpted by our biology, through genetics and environmental processes, mainly from early childhood. Therefore, having discussed types that seem to be associated with very low EQ, the author investigates, in Chapter 5, genetic correlates, and biological correlates. Prof. Baron-Cohen recognizes it as ideal to make these biological associations, to bring to bear well-developed capabilities of science.

Having demonstrated the possibility of a science of evil, and discussed progress that has been made, in the last chapter of the book, the Prof. Baron-Cohen tries to capture the science in a broader perspective. An important consideration is what the consequences of a science of evil would mean.

The early chapters in the book, laying the groundwork and discussing the possibility for the science are very important. However, let us focus on this last chapter. This is Chapter 6 and it is called “Reflections on Human Cruelty”. Certainly, when one thinks about evil, one associates it, in terms of its contrast with good, with moral philosophy or with religion, not with science. Prof. Baron-Cohen was hoping to introduce science in terms of ten points he discusses in the last chapter of his book.

The first point is associated with empathy, in that, in having an EQ, or empathy quotient, from taking the survey he and his associates developed, one can place oneself on a spectrum from low EQ to high. This EQ, more fundamentally, from a scientific perspective, is related to our biology. With respect to evil, Prof. Baron-Cohen focused, and this is his second point, on very low EQ, and asked the question whether there are recognizable psychological types associated with low EQ. He is able to associate, with what he calls Zero-Negative, three types: P, N and B. These are highly recognizable types that are ordinarily regarded as psychological disorders. The word “zero” in Zero-Negative is meant to suggest the relationship to very low EQ and the word “Negative” is meant to imply that people in these categories are associated with pathological psychological behavior.

In one of the appendices of his book and in Chapter 3, Prof. Baron-Cohen gives brief descriptions to help recognize these types. Type P, for example, which is associated with psychopathic personality disorder, is associated with:
Superficial charm;
Lack of anxiety or guilt;
Undependability and dishonesty;
Egocentricity;
Inability to form lasting intimate relationships;
Failure to learn from punishment;
Poverty of emotions;
Lack of insight into the impact of their behavior;
Failure to plan ahead.
Such criteria are matters of degree, and clearly depend somewhat on the subjective judgment of the observer. However, the claim is that this, with more precise clinical designations, is a medical pathology recognizable to trained psychiatrists. Similarly, type N, associated with narcissistic personality disorder, and type B, associated with borderline personality disorder, are claimed by the author to be conditions subject to diagnostic criteria of pathologies, and not strictly subjective categories.

The third point that the author wishes to emphasize is that these recognizable types, when subjected to standard neuroscience procedures, tend to display atypical patterns of responses in the “circuitry” of the brain associated with empathy. The fact that atypical responses are indicated gives a diagnostic tool for these categories. A fourth point is that once one has associated behavior with brain circuitry, treatments are suggested which might alter these responses, and possibly affect an improvement in the psychological condition, in itself. For example, people with autism also tend to score very low EQs and have atypical brain responses in empathy circuitry, but are not Zero-Negative. In Prof. Baron-Cohen’s researches on autism, his research group developed educational software for autistic children that has led to changes in these brain responses and higher EQs. It is possible that the same might also be observed for people who are Zero-Negative. The fact that brain circuitry is very complex, and not likely to be subject to any conscious control that might deceive psychiatrists is significant in this regard.

One startling finding from psychology about the types P and B is that quite often it is found that the environments people of these types were subject to were abusive or very harsh. This correlation relates to the author’s fifth point. We certainly cannot ascribe a causal relation to a statistical correlation. However, results of psychological observations certainly suggest that a nurturing environment as a child may be highly correlated with a substantial EQ, or a high degree of empathy. Prof. Baron-Cohen says this can lead to what is observed as early secure attachment, and “can be understood as an internal pot of gold”.

Prof. Baron-Cohen makes five further important points:
There are genes for empathy;
One category of low EQ is not associated with pathology, but is actually positive: Zero-Positive, associated with autism spectrum conditions;
Zero-Positive is the result of a mind constantly striving to step out of time, to set aside the temporal dimension in order to see – in stark relief – the eternal repeating patterns of nature;
The Zero-Positive mind finds change toxic;
Empathy is the most valuable resource in our world;
Having made these assertions, the author discusses some outstanding puzzles that remain. The author feels that he has just begun to explore interesting questions and that many remain. For example, one obvious and pertinent question is: Are there other categories that are identifiably low EQ?

Since Prof. Baron-Cohen has discussed the fact that certain pathologies can be tied to specific diagnostic features of an empathy circuit, he also wishes to consider the extent to which this low EQ type of diagnoses can be incorporated or has been incorporated into psychiatry. He discusses this in the context of the DSM-IV (“Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders”, fourth ed.), which is one of the most important reference books that psychiatrists consult in their diagnoses. He is interested in introducing an “empathy disorder” category in this book, and he discusses what this might mean with respect to certain types of criminal activity, which he believes relates to low empathy. He discusses this both in relation to people who commit crimes who are evidently Zero-Negative, as well as in relation to people involved in criminal activity who are Zero-Positive, and he definitely believes that, with respect to punishments, when people are committing a crime that seems to be related to their lack of empathy, that a certain level of compassion in meting out their punishment would be wise. These are speculative issues that Prof. Baron-Cohen is discussing, and he does point out that, at the time of writing his book, there was no plan to introduce an empathy disorder category in the next edition of the DSM. It should be mentioned that empathy is discussed in DSM-IV, for example, in the narcissistic personality disorder (which is the type N that Prof. Baron-Cohen studied), however, there is no specific empathy disorder category.

A very interesting issue discussed by Prof. Baron-Cohen in this last chapter of his book is the “banality of evil”, first noted by the political theorist Hannah Arendt on observing the trial of the Nazi, Adolf Eichmann, in a Jerusalem court. In this context, one pictures the accommodation people can make, when they are a part of a long chain of small acts that end or begin in cruelty, an acquiescence to authority or part of a greater group conformity. Here, one is dealing with ordinary people, performing unempathic acts. Is it possible that people with average EQs can “switch off” their empathy temporarily? This brings up even deeper questions of possible implications for evil or cruel acts of just the typical person. This counterintuitive notion means that evil or the refraining from evil acts, is not necessarily something that can be addressed by science. However, the question of an “underactive” empathy circuit in the brain is manifested in this, and Prof. Baron-Cohen dedicates a section of the chapter to this.

There definitely seem to be certain biological events and factors, that can manifest themselves at critical points in a person’s life, often in early childhood, that can irreversibly drive the empathy circuit toward atypical responses. Furthermore, Prof. Baron-Cohen stresses that changes in this circuitry, whether irreversible or not, can be correlated with systemizing behavior versus empathic responses. Does this mean that a correlation is being established at a scientific level to what we regard as evil or cruel behavior?

In bringing up the point about irreversibility, Prof. Baron-Cohen is induced, in the next section of the chapter to consider the extent to which changes in EQ or empathy, as indicated by responses in brain circuitry, can be reversed. Prof. Baron-Cohen, in the face of knowledge of crimes, criminals and criminal behavior, maintains a somewhat positive attitude, as he expresses here, through a quote from one of his friends, Peter Lipton, given as part of a sermon: “If we treat another person as emotionally bad, we dehumanize him or her. If we take the view that every human being has some good in them, even if it is only 0.1 percent of their makeup, then by focusing on their good part, we humanize them. By acknowledging and attending to and rewarding their good part, we allow it to grow, like a small flower in a desert.”

Basically, in considering the lack of empathy, we are anticipating more of a focus on systemization or logic. In the next section, Prof. Baron-Cohen briefly considers what it means as we allow empathy to have an increasing role. He pictures this as allowing the empathy circuit more of a role, and this, he speculates, permits us to mirror ourselves in another and allow us to see the other as less of an object and more alive to us. He then discusses briefly why the distribution for EQ is in the shape of a bell, if a heavier weighting for empathy is positive. Why are the “super” empathic rare? To a certain extent, the balance between empathy and systemizing occurs from biological pressures for survival, but as the author emphasizes in the last section of the book, where he discusses the ongoing strife between Israel and the Palestinians, empathy as a resource is somewhat taken for granted, and we often fail to recognize its benefits. He leaves us with a hopeful message: “Empathy is a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes solvable.”

The book is well-structured, and well-edited, with the beginning paragraph of each chapter serving to bring us into the concerns of the chapter, and the last paragraph providing a message or perspective for us. The chapter titles are well-chosen, and the headings for each section in a chapter provide good descriptions for the discussion of that section. Furthermore, in one appendix, an EQ or empathy quotient survey is provided, so that we can gauge for ourselves the specifics of the measurement of empathy that Prof. Baron-Cohen and his co-workers have developed. For further exploration, he supplies us with references to a historical account of empathy by J. Rifkin and an evolutionary account by F. de Waal. The book Prof. Baron-Cohen has written is short, but his discussions about psychology and neuroscience are interesting at the level of the general educated person, and, although not a novel idea, his possible association of lack of empathy with evil and cruelty benefit from his scientific expertise in neuroscience and the study of autism. I recommend this book as an alternative focused on science to a consideration of evil focused on religion or moral philosophy, which would be independent of any bias for or against religious belief. He shows that the scientific point of view may have considerable value for us in our daily lives, in weighing the meaning of criminal of evil acts, and in assisting in psychiatric diagnoses and treatment.
...more
4

Aug 28, 2016

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

“The Science of Evil” is a very interesting book that examines human cruelty. British researcher Simon Baron-Cohen takes the reader on a fascinating ride that focuses on the social and genetic factors that impact empathy. This stimulating 272-page book includes the following six chapters: 1. Explaining “Evil” and Human Cruelty, 2. Empathy Mechanism: The Bell Curve, 3. When Zero Degrees of Empathy Is Negative, 4.When The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

“The Science of Evil” is a very interesting book that examines human cruelty. British researcher Simon Baron-Cohen takes the reader on a fascinating ride that focuses on the social and genetic factors that impact empathy. This stimulating 272-page book includes the following six chapters: 1. Explaining “Evil” and Human Cruelty, 2. Empathy Mechanism: The Bell Curve, 3. When Zero Degrees of Empathy Is Negative, 4.When Zero Degrees of Empathy Is Positive, 5. The Empathy Gene Twins, and 6. Reflections on Human Cruelty.

Positives:
1. A well-written, well-researched book.
2. A fascinating topic, the science of evil, in the capable hands of Simon Baron-Cohen. He treats this controversial topic with care and respect.
3. The book flows nicely from one chapter to the next.
4. Limited but good use of charts and figures.
5. Does a great job of establishing the expectations of the book. “In this book I explore how people can treat each other cruelly not with reference to the concept of evil, but with reference to the concept of empathy. Unlike the concept of evil, empathy has explanatory power. In the coming chapters I put empathy under the microscope.”
6. Provides four examples of empathy erosion. Memorable accounts.
7. Defines the key term of the book to satisfaction, “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.” “This suggests there are at least two stages in empathy: recognition and response.”
8. The seven likely settings of the Empathizing Mechanism. From level 0 where the individual has no empathy at all to level 6 where individuals show remarkable empathy.
9. Great use of current science to make compelling arguments. “There is a consensus in neuroscience that at least ten interconnected brain regions are involved in empathy (and more may await discovery).” Explains in an accessible manner these brain regions and their relationship with empathy.
10. The three forms of Zero-Negative: Zero-Negative Borderline (Type B), Zero-Negative Psychopath (Type P), and Zero-Negative Narcissist (Type N). Provides case studies for each one. “The hallmark of borderlines is a constant fear of abandonment, emotional pain and loneliness, hatred (of others and of themselves), impulsivity, and self-destructive, highly inconsistent behavior.”
11. Explores the causes of the Zero-Negative degrees of empathy. “Common within families of children who later grow up to become borderline are incest, child abuse, violence, and alcoholism. Obviously, the link between child abuse and borderline is not total: Not all who are abused go on to become borderline, and not all those who are borderline were abused.”
12. The difference between the psychopath and borderline behavior. “When we meet the psychopath, we see a person who shares that same total preoccupation with oneself as we saw in Type B. But in this case there is a willingness to do whatever it takes to satisfy their desires.”
13. Interesting facts. “About 15 percent of prison samples are psychopaths and just less than 1 percent of males in the general population.”
14. A look at Zero-Positive degrees of empathy. “Zero-Positive means that alongside difficulties with empathy, these individuals have remarkably precise, exact minds. They have Asperger Syndrome, a condition on the autistic spectrum.”
15. A look at the autistic brain, a sensitive topic treated with respect. “In addition to difficulty in understanding others, people who are Zero-Positive have difficulty understanding their own minds, a difficulty called “alexithymia,” which translates as “without words for emotion.””
16. The two ways to systemize. “The first is by observation alone. We observe the changing data and then look for a pattern in the data. The second way we systemize is by observation plus operation. We observe the data and then perform some operation (manipulating one variable) and observe the effect of that operation.”
17. A look at the new evidence that environmental factors interact with “genes for empathy.” “In the “right” environment someone with the genetic predisposition to psychopathy could show this behavior.” “Some scientists have focused their search for empathy genes on those that affect the neurotransmitter serotonin. Too much serotonin in the synapse has been linked to aggression.”
18. Presents ten new ideas that focus on empathy erosion versus “evil”.
19. A look at superempathy.
20. Provides supplementary material on the empathy quotient and how to spot zero degrees of empathy (negative).

Negatives:
1. Neuroscience is in its infancy and as a result the book may not have the feel of a hard science but I thought the author didn’t oversell what we currently know.
2. There are some topics that were barely touched, as an example, aggression in males versus females. Aggression and how it varies by culture.
3. I would like to see an update to the book so that the author can address some of the criticism.
4. An appendix explaining the author’s methodology would have been helpful.

In summary, I enjoyed this book. This is a very interesting topic and Baron-Cohen treats the topic fairly without overselling what we currently know. Though the author left many fruits on the tree what’s in the book is very good. I recommend it.

Further suggestions: “ The Anatomy of Violence” by Adrian Raine, “The Age of Empathy” by Frans de Waal, “Obedience to Authority” by Stanley Milgram, “The Psychopath Test” by Jon Ronson, “The Sociopath Next Door” by Martha Stout Ph.D., “Just babies: The Origins of Good and Evil” by Paul Bloom, "Psychopath Free” by Peace, “The Psychopath Exposed” by Jonas Warstad, “Sociopath: Enter The Mind of a Sociopath!” by Clarence T. Rivers “The Psychopath Inside” by James Fallon, and “Snakes in Suits” by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare. ...more
3

May 01, 2019

I totally agree with the arguments presented discussing degrees of empathy and how they manifest in day-to-day life. I especially enjoyed the last chapter on empathy as a solution to world issues. My only complaint is that (for me) the brain science gets a bit dry.
4

Jul 14, 2017

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!
http://www.BookCrossing.com/journal/14635112
3

Jun 27, 2011

For those who follow this subject, there's not much new here. And I don't necessarily agree with all the author's assertions. (Are psychopaths, borderlines and narcissists all truly "zero empathy?" I doubt it.) But he presents his case fairly well, and every genuine voice in the battle against "evil" deserves a hearing.

Baron-Cohen's work in The Science of Evil rests on the narrow fence between pop psychology and serious research. And with glaring flaws like the twice-made proposition that the For those who follow this subject, there's not much new here. And I don't necessarily agree with all the author's assertions. (Are psychopaths, borderlines and narcissists all truly "zero empathy?" I doubt it.) But he presents his case fairly well, and every genuine voice in the battle against "evil" deserves a hearing.

Baron-Cohen's work in The Science of Evil rests on the narrow fence between pop psychology and serious research. And with glaring flaws like the twice-made proposition that the words "evil" and "empathy" can be substituted one for another (wha?), I was left less impressed with the seriousness of the book than carried along by a competent, if sometimes a bit dry, voice. However, once I got to the author's notes at the end of the book, I found the engaging writer I should have met in the first chapter, and I wondered why such human touches were buried in the back of the book.

Baron-Cohen marries scientific research and religious impulse well in the final sections of the book, and makes a solid moral case for refusing to give up on any living human being, no matter the evil they may have displayed. So it's obvious he's coming at this subject from a purely academic, and not a personal, point of view. As for me, I think I prefer my old-school black and white, shake-the-dust way of looking at evil. In my rear-view mirror. ...more
4

Jun 29, 2011

Simon Baron-Cohen tells us that what we call "evil" is in reality a total lack of empathy, the result of either genetics, abuse, or both.

Recently, I happened to catch on TV part of the current Casey Anthony trial. A forensics expert had been called to testify regarding insect activity present in the deceased child's body when found. While he was giving his testimony the camera panned to Ms. Anthony. Considering the graphic nature of the subject and the fact that the deceased was her own child, Simon Baron-Cohen tells us that what we call "evil" is in reality a total lack of empathy, the result of either genetics, abuse, or both.

Recently, I happened to catch on TV part of the current Casey Anthony trial. A forensics expert had been called to testify regarding insect activity present in the deceased child's body when found. While he was giving his testimony the camera panned to Ms. Anthony. Considering the graphic nature of the subject and the fact that the deceased was her own child, I was struck by her apparent total lack of emotion. (I might add that her guilt remains to be seen, I was just impressed by her lack of emotion.)

The author relates some interesting case histories, discusses the degrees of lack of empathy, together with other antisocial traits, narcissism, etc. and the fact that some degree of detachment is required in certain professions i.e., doctors, scientists, engineers, etc. and, finally, sums up how we as nations and individuals can use empathy to resolve our conflicts.

...more

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