Q&A: Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen on Empathy and the Science of Evil

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Cambridge psychology professor and leading autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen is best known for studying the theory that a key problem in autistic disorders is “mind blindness,” difficulty understanding the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others. He’s also known for positing the “extreme male brain” concept of autism, which suggests that exposure to high levels of testosterone in the womb can cause the brain to focus on systematic knowledge and patterns more than on emotions and connection with others. (Oh, and yes, he’s also the cousin of British comedian Sacha “Borat” Baron Cohen.)

Baron-Cohen’s new book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, examines the role of empathy, the ability to understand and care about the emotions of others, not only in autism but in conditions like psychopathy in which lack of care for others leads to antisocial and destructive behavior.

What do you mean when you write about “zero negative” empathy?

Zero empathy refers to people at the extremely low end of the scale. They tend to be people with personality disorders, particularly antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). I focus quite a lot on psychopathy [the extreme form of ASPD] and also on two other personality disorders, borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

The ‘negative’ is meant to be shorthand for this being negative for the individual but also for the people around them. It’s meant to contrast with what I call ‘zero positive’ empathy, which effectively describes the autistic spectrum.

[Autistic people] struggle with empathy just like zero negatives but it seems to be for very different reasons. I’m arguing that their low empathy is a result of a particular cognitive style, which is attentive to details and patterns or rules, which in shorthand, I call systemizing.

If we think about the autism spectrum as involving a very strong drive to systemize, that can have very positive consequences for the individual and for society. The downside is that when you try to systemize certain parts of the world like people and emotions, those sorts of phenomena are less lawful and harder to systemize. That can lead to having low empathy, almost like a byproduct of strong systemizing.

How do you account for people who are both highly empathetic and highly systematic, such as some of those with Asperger’s who are actually oversensitive to the emotions of others?

I’ve certainly come across subgroups like that. There are people with Asperger’s whom I’ve met who certainly would be very upset to learn they’d hurt another person’s feelings. They often have very strong moral consciences and moral codes. They care about not hurting people. They may not always be aware [that they’ve said something rude or hurtful], but if it’s pointed out, they would want to do something about it.

The other side of their moral sense is that they often have a strong sense of justice or fairness. They may have arrived at it through looking for logical patterns rather than necessarily because they can easily identify with someone, however.

People often think that autistic people are dangerous, like psychopaths, when they hear this idea that they have “no empathy.”

In a way, that was one of my motivations for writing the book. Low empathy is a characteristic of many different conditions or disorders. Often books are written where they either focus on psychopathy or autism but [not both].

We have to look at them side by side, and when we do that, we see that they are very different and it’s important to bring that out.

Is it the case, then, that autistic people are not good at the “mind reading” part of empathy, in terms of predicting people’s behavior and feelings, while psychopaths are able to do that but are not able to care?

I think the contrast between these two conditions provides some evidence for that dissociation within empathy. People with psychopathy are very good at reading the minds of their victims. That’s probably most clearly seen in deception. You have to be good at mind reading before it would even occur to you want [to deceive someone]. So you can see the cognitive part of empathy as functioning very well, but the fact that they don’t have the appropriate emotional response to someone else’s state of mind, the feeling of wanting to alleviate distress if someone’s in pain, [that suggests that] the affective part of empathy is not functioning normally.

What stunts the development of empathy in personality disorders?

In the book, I explore both early environmental factors and biological and genetic factors. I think it’s particularly clear in borderline personality disorder (BPD) that there’s a strong association between early environmental deprivation and neglect and abuse and later outcome of BPD. There’s an association [with abuse and trauma early in life] in psychopathy, but it’s not strong as in BPD.

What defines borderline personality disorder?

There seems to be quite a lot of difficulty in self-regulation, in the regulation of their own emotional state. A lot of people with BPD also have depression. Many are suicidal. Many have had a history of feeling attacked or uncared for’ they are almost hypersensitive to possible threats from others.

They react almost with a hair trigger — if they perceive they are being attacked, they go on the attack. People with BPD can be so preoccupied by their own sense of not being cared for and not being understood that they can become blind to the impact of their own behavior on others.

So how would you address increasing empathy in these conditions?

There are interesting and imaginative new approaches to treatment for empathy. Some are medications like oxytocin. Some are psychological treatments like Peter Fonagy’s work on mentalization therapy. I haven’t ever watched it done but the idea is to encourage the patient to stop and think about others’ thoughts and feelings. It’s particularly useful for BPD. When someone with that condition is mostly focusing on themselves, the therapist prompts them to take other people’s perspectives. And just through repetition and practice, people get better and better.

I don’t see how that would work with psychopaths.

People are doing some clinical approaches with psychopaths too, like getting them to meet their victims. That’s obviously got lots of traumatic risk attached to it [for the victim], but again, it’s an exercise in perspective-taking.

I think if we take seriously the idea that behavior is the result of the brain — that having low empathy [is] the result of the way the empathy circuit is functioning or has developed — it does raise moral questions. When someone is acting with low empathy, why do we judge them as bad and punish them? It does shift the locus of where [they should be treated] philosophically, from the criminal justice system to health care.

Don’t you think there are people who are actually evil, who know what they’re doing is wrong and harmful but choose to do it anyway?

I argue in the book that I don’t find the term evil very useful. Once you are down at zero degrees of empathy, all kinds of behavior become possible. I don’t find it scientifically useful to use that term. Empathy is a scientific term in a way that evil isn’t. You can try to localize it in the brain; you can look for which part of brain is activated. It’s normative behavior. Evil is kind of the opposite of good, I guess, but empathy, as we were talking earlier, is quantifiable and normal. You can measure it and look for it, whereas you don’t see evil in the brain.

It’s argued that humans were able to evolve cooperation and altruism only by having a way to detect and punish those who didn’t cooperate.

I could see an evolutionary benefit for both empathy and lack of empathy too. Low empathy allows you to act selfishly, which could be in your interest, but high empathy fosters social cohesion and it’s good for the individual to end up as part of a social network.

I speculate that maybe most people end up in the middle, which may be the optimal position. It’s good to have some empathy, so at the very least you avoid offending or inadvertently hurting someone, but too much empathy might mean never completing your own projects.

How does your cousin Sacha Baron Cohen, creator of Borat, rate on empathy? His work can really make you cringe, but he must be excellent at mind reading to do it.

First of all, he and I have a family agreement that we don’t talk about each other. I respect his work. I think that sometimes that kind of comedy can create what you called a “cringe reaction,” cringing with embarrassment, but that has a purpose.

Why does empathy seem especially lacking in the teen years?

It’s kind of interesting that parents comment on adolescence as being a low point in empathy. But there’s still quite a lot of maturation going on in the part of the brain that involves empathy during that period. There could also be hormonal factors, particularly in males with the increase in testosterone. That could change empathy levels.

I’m struck that if you look at the “terrible two’s,” kids who have tantrums when they don’t get their way, and teens, at one level it looks like very little development has gone on. There’s a transition at around age four to becoming able to apprehend that others have different perspectives. You would imagine that empathy would almost reach a peak in early childhood, but it seems to have a long protracted development.

It seems to me that the terrible twos and adolescence are both the most intense periods of brain development. Could that be why empathy is impaired then?

That’s really interesting. I think brain maturation is one thing and also just the experience of relationships. I think that empathy has to have an environment in which to work, and that environment is relationships. Making mistakes in relationships is all part of learning to empathize.

There was an interesting study I was part of. Women who took extra testosterone were given the ‘reading the mind in eyes test.’ [The test measures how well people can read others’ emotions by looking at their eyes.] A dose of testosterone lowered scores on this test. It was one of the first demonstrations that changing testosterone levels affects your empathy.

If you’re taking an evolutionary approach, it might be very adaptive if you have to use aggression for self-defense. You’d be more effective if you didn’t have empathy getting in the way.

A U.S. doctor tried to treat autism by lowering testosterone levels, citing your work as justification, although he actually didn’t get the research right. He just lost his license because he was using a “chemical castration” drug on kids to do this.

We haven’t considering [lowering testosterone] as a treatment to study for autism. I’m not comfortable with it ethically in terms of side effects. They misquoted [our research], and cited it as evidence that there was elevated testosterone in autism when, in fact, we haven’t shown that. They presented it as if we’re endorsing it, which I’m certainly not.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.