The Empathy Foundation Network

Growing empathy for a peaceful world

From The Age, June 26, 2011

 This is an edited extract from Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty, by Simon Baron-Cohen published this week by Penguin Australia.

Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge.


 The ability to see through another's eyes is a crucial human trait; we all suffer in its absence.

WHEN I was seven years old, my father told me the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades. Just one of those comments you hear once and the thought never goes away. I knew our family was Jewish, so this image of turning people into objects felt a bit close to home.

Years later, I was teaching at St Mary's Hospital Medical School in London. I sat in on a lecture on physiology. The professor was teaching about human adaptation to temperature. He told the students the best data available on human adaptation to extreme cold had been collected by Nazi scientists performing ''immersion experiments'' on Jews and other inmates of Dachau concentration camp who they put into vats of freezing water. They collected systematic data on how heart rate correlated with time at zero degrees.

Hearing about this unethical research retriggered that same question in my mind: how do humans come to switch off their natural feelings of sympathy for a fellow human being who is suffering?

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The standard explanation is that the Holocaust is an example of the ''evil'' that humans are capable of inflicting on one another. But when you hold up the concept of evil to examine it, that is no explanation at all. For a scientist, this is wholly inadequate.

As a scientist, I want to understand the factors causing people to treat others as if they are mere objects. So let's substitute the term ''empathy erosion'' for evil. Empathy erosion can arise because of corrosive emotions, such as bitter resentment, or desire for revenge, or blind hatred, or desire to protect. In theory these are transient emotions and the empathy erosion is reversible. But empathy erosion can be the result of more permanent psychological characteristics.

Unempathic acts are simply the tail end of a bell curve found in every population on the planet. If we want to replace the term evil with the term empathy erosion, we have to understand empathy closely. The key idea is that we all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum. People said to be evil or cruel are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum. We can all be lined up along this spectrum of individual differences, based on how much empathy we have. At one end of this spectrum we find ''zero degrees of empathy''.

Zero degrees of empathy means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions. It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don't work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness. Other people's thoughts and feelings are just off your radar. The consequence is that you believe 100 per cent in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong or stupid.

Zero degrees of empathy does not strike at random in the population. There are at least two well-defined routes to getting to this end-point: borderline and psychopathic disorders. I see these as zero-negative because they have nothing positive to recommend them. They are unequivocally bad for the sufferer and for those around them. Of course, these are not all the sub-types that exist. Indeed, alcohol, fatigue and depression are just a few examples of states that can temporarily reduce one's empathy. Schizophrenia is another example of a medical condition that can reduce one's empathy.

CAROL is 39 years old. I met her when she came to our diagnostic clinic in Cambridge. She has borderline personality disorder. For as long as she can remember, and certainly going back into early childhood, she has felt her life was ''cursed''. As she looks back on her stormy childhood, her unstable teens and her crisis-ridden adulthood, she contemplates her lifetime of depression.

Her relationship with her parents has been punctuated by periods of years during which she did not speak to them. However nice people are to her, she feels she can never quench this simmering rage, which even today can come out as hatred towards anyone she feels is disrespecting her. Often people she perceives as disrespecting her are simply people who disagree with her, and she senses that they are doing this in a confrontational way.

People with borderline disorder cannot tolerate being alone. For them, aloneness feels like abandonment, and to avoid that awful feeling the person will seek out other people, even relationships with strangers. But whoever they are with, borderlines either feel suffocated (by someone getting close to them) or abandoned (by someone being distant from them). They cannot find a calm middle ground in which to enjoy a relationship comfortably. Instead they go through an unhealthy alternating sequence of pushing others away (with angry hate) or clinging desperately to them (with extreme gratitude).

Remarkably, despite the unstable behaviour of borderlines, or Type Bs, scientists have managed to study their brains, which are definitely different in much of the empathy circuit.

First, there is decreased binding of neurotransmitters to one of the serotonin receptors. Neuroimaging also reveals underactivity in the orbital frontal cortex and in the temporal cortex - all parts of the empathy circuit. A novel approach has been to follow up people who were abused as children and scan their brains. It is novel because it is prospective rather than retrospective: the emotional damage was done in childhood and the scientific question is: ''What happens to their brain?''

Not all of them will be Type Bs, but a significant proportion will be. Such people again have abnormalities in the empathy circuit, such as having a smaller amygdala. This is also true of women who were sexually abused, who later show less grey matter in their left medial temporal cortex compared to non-abused women. Smaller hippocampal volume is also found in people who experienced a trauma and went on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.

One interpretation of this evidence is that the early negative experiences of abuse and neglect change how the brain turns out. But the key point is that the zero degrees of empathy in people with borderline disorder arises from abnormalities in the empathy circuit of the brain.

Paul (not his real name) is 28 and is in a prison after being found guilty of murder. He insisted he wasn't guilty because the man he stabbed had provoked him by looking at him across a bar. Paul had gone over and said, ''Why were you staring at me?'' The man had replied, I assume truthfully: ''I wasn't staring at you. I was simply looking around the bar.'' Paul had felt incensed by the man's answer, believing it to be disrespectful, and felt he needed to be taught a lesson. He picked up a beer bottle, smashed it and plunged the jagged end into the man's face.

Paul is a psychopath - a Type P - though to give him the proper diagnostic label, he has antisocial personality disorder. He earns this label because he shows ''a pervasive pattern of disregard for and violation of the rights of others that begins in childhood or adolescence, and continues into adulthood''.

Clearly Type Ps differ in important ways to Type Bs, but they share the core feature of being zero-negative: their zero degrees of empathy can result in them doing cruel things to others. The Type P brain, too, shows lots of evidence of abnormalities in the empathy circuitry.

EMPATHY itself is one of the most valuable resources in our world. Given this, it is puzzling that in the school curriculum empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing, it is rarely if ever on the agenda. We can see examples among our political leaders of the value of empathy, as when Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk sought to understand each other, crossing the divide in apartheid South Africa. But the same has not yet been achieved between Israel and Palestine, or between Washington and Iraq or Afghanistan. And for every day that empathy is not employed in such corners of the world, more lives are lost.

I think we have taken empathy for granted, and thus to some extent overlooked it. Psychology as a science virtually ignored it for a century. Educators focusing on literacy and mathematics have also largely ignored it. We just assume empathy will develop in every child, come what may. We put little time, effort or money into nurturing it. Our politicians almost never mention it, despite the fact that they need it more than anyone. Until recently, neuroscientists hardly questioned what empathy is.

I went to Alyth Gardens synagogue in north London last year. Two men went up on the stage. The first one spoke. ''I am Ahmed, and I am a Palestinian. My son died in the intifada, killed by an Israeli bullet. I come to wish you all Shabbat Shalom.''

Then the other man spoke. ''I am Moishe, and I am an Israeli. My son also died in the intifada, killed by a homemade petrol bomb thrown by a Palestinian teenager. I come to wish you all Salaam Alaikum.''

Here were two fathers, from different sides of the political divide, united by their grief and now embracing each other's language. How had they met? Moishe had taken the opportunity offered by a charity called the Parents Circle for Israelis and Palestinians to make free phone calls into each other's homes, to express their empathy to bereaved parents on the other side of the barbed-wire fence.

Ahmed described how he had been at home in Gaza one day when the phone rang. It was Moishe, at that time a stranger in Jerusalem, who had taken that brave first step. They both openly wept down the phone. Neither had ever met or even spoken to someone from the other community, but both told the other they knew what the other was going through.

Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbour.

Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions to keep oiled, empathy is free. And, unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.



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Comment by Josette O'Donnell on June 29, 2011 at 9:13pm
Wow this is extraodinary. I find the bell curve analogy useful and perhaps worthy of more explanation? What does middle of the range empathy look like??? How does middle of the range empathy in a person relate to the empathy they have for example to the environment, or global poverty/inequalities?? Could we describe these kinds of empathy or is is a trait represented on more than just one bell curve? I also like the analogy of empathy as a "universal solvent" in terms of its impact on conflict or ability to resolve problems.

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