Could A Lack Of Empathy Explain Cruelty?

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.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, Host:

Up next, the science of evil. How are some people capable of causing extreme harm to others? Are they hardwired to do it, or can their behavior be tracked back to a troubled upbringing? My next guest has written a book that asks what makes someone evil, and he says that empathy, empathy might have something to do with it. That's the ability to recognize and respond to someone else's feeling.

Could lowered empathy cause cruelty? Simon Baron-Cohen is author of "The Science of Evil." He's a professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and director of the university's Autism Research Center there. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Baron-Cohen.

SIMON BARON: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Can you give us a definition of what empathy is or what empathy is not?

BARON: Well, you just gave a very good definition. I think it has two parts. The first part is recognition of somebody else's state of mind. So can you identify what someone else is thinking and feeling? But the second part is the response element. Do you have an appropriate emotional response to somebody else's thoughts and feelings?

I think just having one part without the other wouldn't really count as empathy. If you could recognize that someone was in pain, for example, but you didn't do anything about it, that wouldn't really be empathy.

FLATOW: Interesting. And how is that connected to the title of your book, "The Science of Evil"?

BARON: So when we try to explain why people are capable of cruelty, often we use this term evil as if it's an explanation. You know, we say he did something bad because he's evil. But actually when you examine the word, it's not really an explanation at all.

I mean, within a theological context or framework, it might perhaps suggest that there's some kind of demonic possession, but for a scientist, it doesn't really explain why people are capable of cruelty.

So I've been arguing in this book that we should instead use the term empathy and the erosion of empathy to explain how people are capable of hurting other people.

FLATOW: And because it's an emotion, there must be some location for it in our brains, I would imagine.

BARON: Yeah, I mean empathy is not just an emotion, but you're right. It does involve, as we said, that response element, which is having an emotional response to somebody else's state of mind. But it's also got this cognitive element, that is to say the recognition element. And as you say, it's ultimately a function of the brain.

And part of the reason for writing this book is that the neuroscience has been making great strides over the last decade, and I wanted to bring together all the work that's showing where empathy works in the brain.

We've got MRI these days, magnetic resonance imaging, and you can get people to lie in the scanner whilst they're looking at, for example, film clips of other people's facial expressions or their situation, often in painful situations, and you can see which parts of the brain are activated by seeing someone else's state of mind.

FLATOW: And can you teach people who are not empathetic to recognize these emotions?

BARON: You can do that. So empathy isn't a fixed quantity, although there are individual differences in empathy. It's not as if your level of empathy necessarily remains static all your life. You can learn it, it can be taught, and this is often the basis of social skills teaching, for example, but also many therapies have empathy as the target.

FLATOW: Our number, 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, go to our Facebook page. Talking with Simon Baron-Cohen. Dr. Baron-Cohen is author of "The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty." We'll take a short break. Our number again, 1-800-989-8255. Tweet @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. We'll be right back after this break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow talking with Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, author of "The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty." Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Does the lack of empathy have a direct line to cruelty?

BARON: So you - that's the main claim I'm making in my book, but it turns out that a low level of empathy doesn't necessarily lead to cruelty. So the way I see it is it's not a symmetric relationship, that when people do cruel things, they must have had a reduction in their empathy. But if you have low empathy, it doesn't necessarily lead to cruelty.

The reason we know that is from people with autism. They too struggle with empathy, but they don't necessarily go on to hurt other people. Instead, they tend to avoid other people because they find relationships confusing.

FLATOW: So do we all, then, somewhere, lie on some scale of empathy, a spectrum of empathy?

BARON: Yeah, that's the sort of new view. I guess in the old days we would say that empathy was just like a unitary thing, that you either have it or you don't, whereas today we think of it more as a dimension, and you can measure it to see those individual differences.

Most of us are average in empathy, but there are some people who are very high and obviously some people very low, and part of what my book does it explores the reasons why people might end up very low in empathy.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can go to the phones now. Let's go to Chad in Auburn, New York. Hi, Chad.

CHAD: How are you this afternoon?

FLATOW: Hi there.

CHAD: I think your guest is right on with respect to his conclusions. I've been a town judge here for 16 years, and - but I do believe that there's a spectrum of people who lack empathy that can't be fixed. There's an awful lot of young people that maybe lack empathy for their - the people that they're hurting, that they're having a negative impact on.

But I think that there are a number of people who have come before me that really define evil because they have absolutely zero consideration for the impact of their behavior on others. Even after you explain and describe that impact, they don't - they simply can't incorporate.

BARON: Yeah, so I think you're making two points, because first point is that there are some people who really can't appreciate the impact of their own behavior on others, and I agree with you. I mean, I've met people like that.

But I wouldn't necessarily call those people evil. I see that as a neurological disability, no different to other kinds of disabilities. In this case, the brain is not allowing them the capacity of empathy.

I think your other point was that those people can't be helped, that their empathy is fixed once and forever at a very low level. And I guess I'm taking a more optimistic view that sometimes it looks like people are not capable of development, but sometimes you have to take a very long-term view, and the mind may change very slowly, but development is possible.

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?

BARON: 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: 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.

FLATOW: Here's a question, a tweet coming in from CSpanDemocrat(ph) who wants to know: Are not sociopaths without empathy?

BARON: Well, yeah, we were just talking about psychopaths, and they are part of what's called antisocial personality disorder, also called sociopaths, and they do lack empathy. They tend to lack what's called the affective part of empathy. That's to say that although they can identify what someone might be thinking or feeling, they don't really care about other people's thoughts and feelings.

FLATOW: What about a gender difference? Is there a difference between men and women in empathy?

BARON: Well, certainly when it comes to the extremes, people who have very low empathy, we tend to see far more males than females. So psychopaths, for example, tend to be male. But even if you look in the general population, there is a small but statistically significant sex difference, gender difference in empathy that females tend to score higher on most tests of empathy.

FLATOW: You know, psychiatry today is so much - so involved with medications and throwing pills and things at psychiatric symptoms. I'm sure there must be somebody looking for a pill for low empathy somewhere.

BARON: Well, you're right, and research has started along that road, and there's a particular interest in a hormone called oxytocin, which gets quite a lot of press these days. So oxytocin, if you take an extra dose of it, seems to improve people's ability to read other people's faces.

FLATOW: Hmm. You - is that right? And that is one of the problems, is not being able to read and understand the pain or whatever is on someone else's face?

BARON: Yes, for some people, you know, their difficulties are about interpreting other people's facial expressions of emotion, and that's certainly true in the group with autism or Asberger's syndrome, that reading other people's faces or their tone of voice, their intentions, can be quite difficult.

But going back to the question of drugs, I'm not suggesting that, you know, the way to improve empathy is necessarily through a medication route, because certainly there are plenty of psychological approaches, too, that are being tried.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Paula in Toledo. Hi, Paula.

PAULA: Hi, how are you doing? While I've been on hold, I've been getting this sort of like weird flashback to "Clockwork Orange" as I'm listening to this discussion. It seems so dispassionate, and the solutions kind of put that in my mind.

The reason I called was because I was curious to know if the author had had any familiar with the MacArthur Genius Award recipient who had done a study on her kindergarten class and the basic sort of cruelty that she saw forming in her kindergarten class with children who socially up and children who were socially down.

The kids in the up category wouldn't let the social outcasts play with them, and they actually became social outcasts by virtue of the exclusion of the in-crowd. And, you know, this is sort of a thing that gets just more and more intense as children go through school and really gets sophisticated at the high school level.

I was wondering if any of his research had looked at this rather basic, not really pathological, or at least we don't really think of it as pathological cruelty, that people tend to engage in.

BARON: Yeah, no, this is - you've made two really important points. The first is that when we're thinking about people who struggle with empathy, we shouldn't lose our own compassion. And you know, if the discussion was sounding scientific and detached, maybe that's part of the focus of this show, but actually you're absolutely right that ultimately there are people involved here who are struggling.

And, you know, I think your second point is that we don't have to go to the extremes of, for example, people with psychopathic personality disorder, to see examples of how we can hurt each other, that we see this in everyday society. You're describing people who really turn against another group because they're not part of their in-group.

And this is a well-studied area within social psychology, that you can reduce your empathy towards another group of people just because they're not part of your group. So social factors are very important.

FLATOW: Now, we've gotten a lot of tweets about that. Maybe you can expand on that. I'll just go through a couple of the ideas in the tweets. What about social media, decreasing empathy because of the ideas that people encounter on them every day? Can environmental factors reduce empathy, or is it innate?

BARON: Sure, so this is really raising the big question about where our empathy comes from and what determines how much empathy you end up with. And I think there is some evidence for genetic factors, and that comes from looking at twins, because identical twins tend to have more similar levels of empathy than non-identical twins.

But social factors are certainly very important, and some of the best evidence for that comes from people who end up with borderline personality disorder, people who have very - a lot of difficulty regulating their relationships and can show extreme anger towards others. But many of those people have suffered extreme abuse or neglect in their childhood. So, early experience contributes to how much empathy you end up with. It doesn't directly address the issue about social media, but it may well be - I don't know of any studies in that - it may well be that other social factors can influence our level of empathy.

FLATOW: Can you notice it in yourself that you lack empathy and try to get some help, or does somebody else have to help you?

BARON: Well, this is a tricky one because empathy often goes hand-in-hand with self-awareness, that people who are good at empathy are not only good at picking up on other people's feelings, but they - they're also good at reflecting on their own behavior. And so, someone who's low in empathy may be the last person to realize that. And it may mean that other people around them have to give them a little bit of feedback, or it may be that they seek help anyway and discover that they have empathy difficulties.

FLATOW: Well, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, thank you very much for taking time to be with us. Very enlightening.

BARON: Thank you for having me on the show.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Dr. Baron-Cohen is author of "The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty."

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.