This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David
Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is
one component of the Information Age Education project. See
and the end of this newsletter.
Some readers may be interested in the following recent IAE Blog posting:
This IAE Newsletter is the second of a pair of articles that review an
intriguing development—the use of neuroimaging technology to
scientifically explore areas that had formerly been the purview of
theology and philosophy. The first article focused on consciousness and
especially the issue of a celestial afterlife, and this article focuses
on the nature of evil and cruelty.
The Science Of Evil
Empathy is a universal
solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is a free
and effective as a way to resolve any interpersonal problem that one
could imagine—from marriage and family problems to national and
international political disputes. (Adapted from Simon Baron-Cohen)
The genesis of evil, as various religions typically view it, seems beyond scientific
investigation. Religions often ascribe it to malevolent spirits that
enter into humans and direct their misbehavior. In The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty,
Simon Baron-Cohen begs to disagree. He argues persuasively that cruel
behavior related to the concept of evil is the result of specific brain
system deficits and/or malfunctions that result from innate factors and
perhaps also from poor childhood nurturing. He further argues that absence of empathy is a scientifically more accurate term than evil.
Baron-Cohen brings strong credentials and solid neuroimaging research
to the task. He is widely recognized for his seminal work in exploring
the underlying neurobiology of the autism spectrum (and diminished
empathy is a characteristic of autism). I suspect that the book will be
both widely admired and roundly denounced. In either case, it will
certainly help to set the agenda for a 21st century discussion of how
societies should appropriately respond to cruelty, given emerging
scientific discoveries about brain development and cognitive
processing. The excellent case studies that he inserts into the text
provide a good sense of the complexity of the issues the book raises
The Human Brain
Our brain’s principal task is to plan, regulate, and predict behavior
and the movement of objects. In order to do this, it must
developmentally master two key forms of knowledge about the natural
world that Baron-Cohen calls systematizing and empathizing.
Systematizing involves the ability to recognize, analyze, and
manipulate predictably changing patterns—in effect, to figure out how
things work and how to make them work better. Understanding repetitive
patterns allows us to predict the future, and also to manipulate
variables in order to modify and improve a function.
Empathizing involves the ability to understand other humans, who are a
very important sub-set of the organic and inorganic world. Empathy
occurs when we suspend our normal single-minded focus and instead adopt
a double-minded focus of attention. It thus defines our remarkable
ability to infer and appropriately respond to someone else’s feelings,
thoughts, and intentions. This ability is commonly called Theory of
These two capabilities exist along a low-to-high continuum. Baron-Cohen
has developed two online 60-question self-report tests: Systematizing
Quotient (SQ) and Empathy Quotient (EQ).
scores in a general population will fall within a normal distribution
(a bell-shaped curve), with about 68% of the group within one standard
deviation from the mean. Most of us function adequately in situations
that require some empathy and/or pattern recognition and manipulation.
Those who score at the very high end of either scale will tend to be
exceptionally competent (even obsessed) with either regularity in the
patterns they observe and seek (SQ), or with the feelings and needs of
others (EQ). Those who score at the very low end of either scale
exhibit incompetence in pattern recognition and manipulation (SQ) or in
social skills such as empathy (EQ).
It’s probable that functioning within the moderate middle levels of the
ranges is the most adaptive for our species. For example, being too
other-centered (on the EQ scale) tends to diminish our personal
ambition and attainment for fear of diminishing others. Being too
self-centered allows us to successfully (and even ruthlessly) pursue
our ambitions, and so perhaps to achieve power and wealth, but also to
make many enemies in the process. Although balance is much better for
most of us, the outliers can be both helpful and hurtful to human
Zero Degrees of Empathy: From Discovery to Cruelty
Baron-Cohen indicates that a circuit of (at least) ten highly
interconnected cognitive and affective brain systems regulates empathy.
The book discusses each in detail. Recent neuroimaging studies have
identified many of the circuit deficits and malfunctions that cause
behavioral aberrations. Such behavioral aberrations are not necessarily
For example, people with Asperger’s syndrome score very high in
systematizing (because of their intense focus on regularity) but they
score low on empathy because they have difficulty with the
unpredictability implicit in human emotion and behavior. They thus
prefer to spend their time with whatever predictable systems interest
them, and because of that they may make important discoveries in such
highly patterned fields as mathematics, physics, and engineering.
Although their social skills and interests are low, their behavior
typically isn’t harmful because they’ve developed a logic-based moral
code out of their strong concern for regularity. In effect, they follow
The focus of Baron-Cohen’s book however, is on the downside of empathy
outliers—those who score at the bottom of the empathy scale and often
engage in cruel behavior. Baron-Cohen calls these Zero Negatives, and
three major types of personality disorders characterize this condition:
Borderline Disorders, Psychopathic Disorders, and Narcissist Disorders.
All three exhibit deficits and/or malfunctions in one or more of the
ten systems in the empathy circuit. People with these disorders are
unable to recognize and respond appropriately to the feelings and
desires of others, and are thus often emotionally and/or physically
abusive. Less than 5% of the general population is beset with one of
these disorders, but these people cause much social turmoil and account
for a substantial part of the prison population.
People with borderline disorders are characterized by
self-destructive impulsivity, anger, and mood swings. Their verbal and
emotional abuse is often very cruel. They view people they know as “all
good” or “all bad” and can rapidly shift their assessment from one
characterization to the other. They expect the “all bad” folks to
apologize but often don’t explain what the person had supposedly done.
People with psychopathic disorders are similarly preoccupied with
themselves, but they also exhibit a willingness to do whatever it takes
to satisfy their desires – to charm, lie, cheat, assault, kill… They
will often react violently to a minor real or imagined slight. They can
also commit cold calculated forms of cruelty and seemingly delight in
watching their victim suffer. They lack any sense of anxiety or guilt
over their cruel behavior.
People with narcissist disorders often boastfully say and do
things that offend others, but are less apt to engage in the
aggressively cruel behavior that borderline and psychopaths exhibit.
All of us temporarily lose empathy on occasion due to fatigue, anger,
frustration, alcohol, or other factors, but our empathy returns. The
absence of empathy in the above personality disorders is a trait, a
typically permanent condition.
The discovery that these forms of personality disorder share a common
neurobiological substrate enhances the search for effective
interventions, but doesn’t immediately solve the problem. Genetics
plays an important role in the development and maintenance of an
effective empathy circuit, but environmental challenges trigger genetic
expression. We can’t currently do much about the genetics, but we can
affect a child’s developmental environment. Baron-Cohen views
Attachment Theory as a good beginning, because of its sound explanation
of the positive and negative effects of parental/family affection and
theory). He argues that what a nurturing community gives children as they develop empathy is like an internal pot of gold, something more precious than any material gifts.
Students with empathy problems create difficult school problems—such as
bullying, defacing, and various self-centered acting out problems.
Autism similarly has developed a higher profile in cultural
consciousness, and so schools struggle with the issue of how best to
provide a compassionate school environment for autistic students. The
criminal justice system similarly struggles with the issue of
incarcerating people who medical research now argues are basically ill.
The issue of Free Will adds yet another layer of complexity.
Baron-Cohen doesn’t presume to provide a simple answer for these and
other issues that are emerging out of this body of research, but he
provides a very informed and informative platform where the discussion
can begin—and it will probably continue for quite awhile.
From time to time in these IAE Newsletters we note that human brains
are a lot different from computer brains. Empathy is an important and
complex aspect of a human brain. Some researchers in artificial
intelligence are exploring what it might mean for a computer
system—such as a robot—to have empathy. Right now, humans are far
better at having empathy than are computers. References
Baron-Cohen, S. (2011) The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books.
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