Have you ever seen someone accidentally hit their thumb with a hammer and wince as if you’d actually done it to yourself? Or cried at a weepy movie when the storyline pulls irresistibly at your heartstrings?
If you have, then according to a book by eminent psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, you have a healthy and working ‘empathy circuit’ deep in your nervous system, which may mean you have an inbuilt resistance to what has sometimes been termed ‘the problem of human cruelty’.
‘A cruel people’?
Psychologists, philosophers, criminologists and religious thinkers have struggled to understand the reasons for human cruelty for as long as we have been capable of abstract thought.
There are countless examples, several illustrated in this book, of appalling acts of cruelty – from the solitary cruelty of someone like Josef Fritzl who imprisoned and repeatedly raped his own daughter over a period of many years, to the collective cruelty of the Holocaust and the murder of millions of Jews, gypsies and other ‘undesirables’.
Why does cruelty exist? Is it because of some innate quality or aspect of personality shared by cruel people, which we might name as ‘evil’? Is it because some people are intrinsically evil? And if that’s the case, where does evil come from? And why are some people ‘more evil’ than others?
The Empathy Factor
In ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy’, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University argues that the defining factor in human cruelty is the ability to treat others as mere ‘objects’ rather than as fellow human beings whose feelings, needs and desires are every bit as real as the next person’s.
So what allows someone to treat others like that? Baron-Cohen argues that what is missing in these individuals – to one degree or another – is the ability to feel empathy for others; the ability to see oneself in another’s shoes and understand their lives and experiences as if they were our own.
Having empathy – wincing when we see the hammer hitting another person’s thumb - makes it much more difficult to inflict cruelty and suffering on someone else, because we can all too readily identify with that person. So why do some people have it and some people don’t?
Love, life and genetics
By drawing on his own research (he is a specialist in developmental psychology with a particular interest in autism spectrum disorders) and that of other scientists, Baron-Cohen has written a detailed but very clear account of how the wiring of a baby’s brain is shaped by factors such as the strength of the bond between the infant and its mother, its genetic inheritance or susceptibility, and what are called ‘precipitating factors’: events or experiences that might form the tipping point that pushes a person into unempathic behaviour patterns.
A sliding scale of empathy
Empathy is a curiously slippery concept; some of us have more of it than others, and all of us can lose it on a temporary basis (ever shouted at the driver in front of you who has stalled at the traffic lights when you’re in a hurry to get somewhere?) depending on the situation. Baron-Cohen suggests a sliding scale from zero to six, where those at the bottom end are incapable of feeling empathy towards others, and those at the top end are so empathic that they can be at risk of losing sight of their own feelings because they are so aware of and absorbed in everyone else’s.
Intriguingly, Baron-Cohen also explores the idea that not everyone with zero degrees of empathy is by definition a cruel or deliberately hurtful person. From his research into autism, he speculates that in fact some people with zero degrees of empathy may have very positive and socially productive qualities precisely because of their lack of emotional resonance with others.
Empathy and counselling
Empathy plays an important role in counselling and psychotherapy; therapists try to understand their clients’ stories by empathising with them – trying to see their experiences from the clients’ perspective rather than their own. This book gives a fascinating insight into the neurological basis of empathy and really made me think about how nature and nurture can shape the personalities and character traits of individuals. It also made me wonder whether (from my perspective as a therapist in particular) you can grow your level of empathy through professional training and personal awareness.
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