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NPR’s Ira Flatow interviews Simon-Baron-Cohen on empathy vs. evil

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

An interview you can miss: NPR’s Ira Flatow interviews Simon-Baron-Cohen on empathy vs. evil

Here. Well, read and listen by all means, if you want, but

September 30, 2011

Can neuroscience and psychology explain cruelty? In his new book, The Science of Evil, Cambridge University professor Simon Baron-Cohen explains the empathy spectrum we all lie on and that an erosion of empathy can explain why some commit cruel acts.

Of course an erosion of empathy can explain why some commit cruel acts. So can an erosion of courage or patience or hope. The reason that cruelty and empathy are not listed in traditional catalogues of vices and virtues is precisely that they are not motives in themselves; they are caused by actual motives.

Neither Flatow nor Baron-Cohen seems to have got the message yet about empathy anyway: Detached from positive virtues, it’s not that great. In fact, it is a short step from undisciplined empathy to cruelty. This is a chronic problem in child welfare work, where the worker may become so empathetic with the abusive parent that she fails to protect the child, resulting in the child’s cruel death.

And, on the witness stand, she explains to a gasping jury that she knew she was right to avoid following up on certain causes of serious concern because she was sure at the time that the parent was making progress … in other words, empathy led her to recast the project as helping the parent, forgetful that she works for a child protection agency.

In any event, here’s the kind of thing you are in for:

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Chad. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. So at what point does empathy turn to being evil? How would you define it then? nonlocalizability,

BARON-COHEN: Well, I mean, I’ve been trying to shift the debate away from using the term evil towards simply low empathy. You know, your last caller was, I guess, raising the important context of the judicial system, because people with low empathy can sometimes hurt others and break the law. And you know, it’s very important that we realize that low empathy can lead an individual into the criminal justice system.

FLATOW: Is there somewhere something different in the brain circuitry between a normal person’s brain and a low empathy?

BARON-COHEN: Yeah, and that’s really part of the advance of MRI, is that you can take a group of people with, say, a personality disorder – many of the personality disorders involve low empathy – you can put them into the scanner, and you can look for differences in the empathy circuit.

So empathy isn’t really located in one region. By my count, there are at least 10 different parts of the brain that are activated when you’re trying to empathize with another person. And in people with, say, antisocial personality disorder, who have low empathy, you see reduced activity in many parts of that empathy circuit.

You also see that the size of the regions in the empathy circuit may not have developed to the normal size.

Perhaps because empathy just didn’t interest them? You know, like muscles: Use it or lose it.

Hat tip: Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose

"Empathy" is usually used in contrast to "sympathy" because it means something different - the capacity to imagine what something would feel like to someone else, and is related to Theory of Mind capacity. It isn't altruism - indeed ToM is required to be able to deceive effectively, which is why some autistic spectrum people are often so refreshingly honest. But it isn't even necessary for altruism, because there are alternative cognitive routes, which many autistic spectrum people use. But empathy and ToM aren't the same thing either - there's some reason to think that psychopaths have ToM, but lack empathy = they can understand what other people will think, but fail to feel what they will feel. It's complicated, in other words, which is what I think Baron-Cohen is saying. Elizabeth Liddle

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