Evil: Is it a lack of empathy for fellow human beings?

Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen holds that cognitive factors are to blame for a great deal of destructive behavior. Photo: Dr. Baron-Cohen

FLORIDA, October 5, 2012 — Evil and empathy are two immensely powerful things, needless to say.

Throughout human history, empathy has been used as a natural antidote for even the darkest of intentions. If one wishes to understand the nature of evil, then is it best to study evil itself or how people arrive at such a low in the first place?

Simon Baron-Cohen is one of foremost authorities on the psychology of empathy. His new book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty holds that cognitive factors are to blame for a great deal of destructive behavior.

Joseph F. Cotto: When faced with a tough decision, most people rely on feelings rather than thought. Objectively speaking, this makes little sense. Is there any concrete reason that humans frequently allow themselves to be guided by emotion instead of reason?

Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen: Jonathan Haidt’s new book “The Righteous Mind” gives a good account of the neuroscience of how we form our beliefs and make decisions. He argues we have two very different neural mechanisms, one limbic and one cortical, and that certain cues (whether a snake that moves across our visual field, or a politician’s use of a phrase suggesting our country is under attack) can trigger these evolved circuits.

Cotto: Some scientists and scholars claim that humans are invariably geared toward irrationality. Do you agree with this opinion?

Baron-Cohen: It is true that most humans do not think like logic machines but rather form beliefs using biases, emotional likes and dislikes, and habit, rather than on the basis of evidence. Such shortcuts in our reasoning may be an efficient way to get through the many decisions we have to make each day, but mean that we are also prone to error and dogma.

Cotto: Many say that humans are basically good in character, while others believe the exact opposite. From your standpoint, are either of these perspectives rooted in fact?

Baron-Cohen: These reflect our “optimism” or “pessimism” biases, as discussed in Tali Sharot’s excellent recent book “The Optimism Bias.”

Cotto: Empathy is something that most of us experience, though for very different reasons. Why it so important to human development?

Baron-Cohen: Empathy is vital for subtle communication, sensitive social interaction, fine-tuned social awareness, and rapid, accurate responses to others’ non-verbal indicators of their changing mental states. Practical benefits of empathy are how a parent can ‘”read” their infant’s needs, how a dispute can be diffused before it leads to conflict, how different perspectives can be appreciated, and how we can live not just in our own heads but in others’ heads too.

Cotto: If one were to live life without feeling empathy, could he or she truly function in society?

Baron-Cohen: Some forms of “zero degrees of empathy” are maladaptive (an example being antisocial personality disorder or psychopathy), usually where “affective” empathy is absent. Other forms need not be, for example in the case of Asperger Syndrome, where affective empathy is present but cognitive empathy is a challenge. Such individuals can often live and function in society by avoiding occupations or activities that require real-time communication or real-time social processing and often make valuable and original contributions to society by using strong logic and evidence-based reasoning instead.

Cotto: Can too much empathy be a bad thing? If so, how might it work against one’s own self-interest?

Baron-Cohen: It is not yet known if too much empathy is disabling. This is an area that needs more research. Certainly it may be no coincidence that most people have just average levels of empathy (hence the ‘normal’ distribution of the empathy bell curve) in that this may represent a trade off between how much we empathize in relation to others’ needs, and how much we focus on our own needs.

Cotto: Looking at history, it would seem that most human actions take place on the basis of perceived self-interest. Do you find this to be the case?

Baron-Cohen: Actions that occur on the basis of self-interest can be more conspicuous, the clearest example being leaders who send their armies to war to increase power and control. But all of those small examples of human action that proceed on the basis of empathy may simply be less visible, less conspicuous, but equally frequent.

Cotto: It has been said that there is no such thing as a truly selfless act. Do we feel empathy because this ultimately suits our own ends?

Baron-Cohen: A cynical view would be that even when we comfort others, we are doing this for ourselves (because it makes us feel better to reduce another person’s distress, or because we hope that others will comfort us when we need it in the future). This view may be hard to test and refute but in this sense may not be an empirical question. That is, it may be equally likely that when we comfort others, there is no underlying selfish motive.

Cotto: While attempting to learn about key social issues, do you think that more attention should be paid to the subject of empathy?

Baron-Cohen: I think society can do a lot to foster higher levels of empathy because our empathy circuit can be eroded in all sorts of ways or under all sorts of conditions. One good example is that when we believe that we or our community are under attack, we feel dominant emotions such as anxiety, fight-and-flight, revenge, self-defense, and in-group defense, making it hard to also feel empathy for the out-group.

In areas such as conflict zones we can fostering empathy by bringing individuals together to talk or by helping people in different groups see how they share the same fears and pain, recognizing similarities and minimizing differences. 

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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