Reviewed by Joyce Alexander, RNP (Retired)
Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, is a professor of Developmental Psychology in the department of Experimental psychology and psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. He is director of the University’s Autism Research Center and has endless awards for his research and writing.
If you only read one book about empathy, this book should be it! Baron-Cohen explores the definition of empathy, or the lack of it, in humans, to answer his own questions about the Nazi atrocities in Germany before and during World War II. He also, as a scientist, wanted to explore why some people treat other as objects and answer his questions about how a human being can treat another person with utter cruelty and lack of compassion. His definition of empathy is:
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.
Empathy … requires not only that you can identify another person’s feelings and thoughts, but that you respond to those with an appropriate emotion.
He explains that lack of empathy can be a fleeting state, in which anger, drugs, alcohol, or distractions dampen our empathy temporarily, or it can be a life-long pattern from which there is no recovery. He goes on to show that there are medical conditions in which both parts of empathy are missing (recognition of another’s feelings as well as responding to those feelings.)
Like any good scientist who studies his subject in a scientific manner, Baron-Cohen actually measures empathy. He and his team devised a Empathy Quotient (EQ) in order to measure empathy on the standard bell curve, where the majority of humans are in the middle. Most people have a reasonable amount of empathy most of the time (both recognizing and responding to the feelings of others), with fewer people having a much greater amount of empathy, and others having a lesser amount of empathy.
When I meet someone with very little empathy, it is as if they lack the very apparatus to look inwards at themselves, as if they lack a reverse periscope that would enable them any vision of themselves.
He defines, for research purposes, empathy into six broad categories. He describes zero empathy as:
Individual has no empathy at all … at which level some people commit crimes and are violent, but … fortunately, not all people with zero empathy wish to harm others … they cannot experience remorse or guilt.
At level six are the hyper-empathetic people that he describes as:
Continually focused on other people’s feelings, and go out of their way to check on these and to be supportive. It is as if their empathy is in a constant state of hyper-arousal, such that other people are never off their radar.
Using both psychology and brain scans of the areas of the brain involved in empathy, Baron-Cohen explains how the various personality disorders, psychopathy — he uses that word — borderline and narcissism, overlap in empathy or lack of it. Other medical conditions, such as autism, also cause problems with empathy.
He shows that people with classic autism, while not having empathy, do not generally intend to cause harm to anyone. The book also explores the genetic links. as well as the environmental links. that can produce low or lacking empathy in a personality.
Appendix 1 is the Empathy Quotient self test. Appendix 2 is How to Spot Zero Degrees of Empathy (Negative). It discusses borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality, a young person with conduct disorder, and How to Recognize a Narcissist.
This is an excellent book for learning more about ourselves, as well as learning about people with low levels of empathy. I highly recommend this book for both scientific information and for common sense information that is useful day to day in dealing with others in our lives.
The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, on Amazon.com.