Reflections on Human Cruelty - The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty - Simon Baron-Cohen

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty - Simon Baron-Cohen (2011)

Chapter 6. Reflections on Human Cruelty

My aim in this book has been to restimulate discussion on the causes of evil by moving the debate out of the realm of religion and into the realm of science. I have done this not because I have a Dawkinsian antireligion agenda. On the contrary, I think religion has an important place for individuals and communities whose identities are tied up with such cultural traditions, rituals, and practices. But religion has been singularly anti-inquiry on the topic of the causes of evil. For most religions, the existence of evil is simply an awkward fact of the universe, present either because we fall short in our spiritual aspirations to lead a good life or because such forces (e.g., the devil) are in constant battle with divine forces for control over human nature.

Extremes of evil are typically relegated to the unanalyzable (“Don’t ask why such things happen. It’s just the nature of evil”), the reasoning becomes frustratingly circular (“He did x because he is truly evil”), and it is sometimes even used to reinforce our belief in God (“God wants to test us”). If I have an agenda, it is to urge people not to be satisfied with the concept of “evil” as an explanatory tool, and if I have successfully moved the debate out of the domain of religion and into the social and biological sciences, I will feel this book has made a contribution.

But such an aim is rather broad, and of course I had some more specific aims in this book. In particular, I hope this book has introduced ten new ideas into the debate. Let me present them here in brief.

Ten New Ideas

First, we all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum from high to low. Part of what science has to explain is what determines where an individual falls on this spectrum. I have pointed to some of the genetic, hormonal, neural, and environmental contributory factors, and my list is not comprehensive because not all the evidence is yet available. The list at least shows how we can go about adding to such evidence.

Second, at one end of this spectrum is zero degrees of empathy, and we can classify zero degrees of empathy into Zero-Negative and Zero-Positive forms. The three major subtypes of Zero-Negative are Types P, N, and B. These are not all the subtypes that exist. Indeed, alcohol, fatigue, and depression are just a few examples of states that can temporarily reduce empathy, and schizophrenia is another example of a medical condition that can reduce empathy. More subtypes will need to be characterized, but this list at least initiates the process. Critics may reasonably ask: Surely there is nothing new about Types P, N, and B? Haven’t we have known for at least half a century about these three personality disorders? I would reply that this is precisely the problem. The traditional classification system has categorized these three types as personality disorders, overlooking what they all share: that they are all forms of zero degrees of empathy. Thus, their existence is not new, but in this book I have suggested we subtly shift how we think about them. At the surface level they can properly still be viewed as personality disorders. But we can now go beyond the surface level to link all three to a common underlying mechanism: empathy.

Third, whatever route a person takes to zero degrees of empathy, the normative brain basis of empathy (the empathy circuit) will be atypical at zero degrees of empathy. In Chapter 2 we saw the ten brain regions that make up this circuit, and in Chapter 3 we saw how these were indeed (in different combinations) atypical in the Zero-Negative brain types. Calling them personality disorders doesn’t guide us as to where to look in the brain for their basis. Calling them Zero-Negative shows us precisely where to look. At the intersection of Types N, B, and P (see Figure 6) is this set of ten brain regions. In this sense, psychiatry could lump together a range of apparently separate medical conditions as zero degrees of empathy, changing the way we classify and diagnose.

Fourth, treatment of zero degrees of empathy should target the empathy circuit. Treatments for empathy might include educational software such as the Mindreading DVD ( or the Transporterschildren’s animation ( we created for people with autism spectrum conditions.321,322 The former was designed for all ages and so lends itself to a trial with adults who are Zero-Negative. The promising findings of oxytocin nasal inhalation spray boosting empathy in typical individuals and in people with autism suggest this, too, could be tried in people who are Zero-Negative. 303,323 Forms of role-play that involve taking the victim’s perspective may also be worth trying. Calling the brain types personality disorders leads to debates about whether personality can be changed, especially if personality is defined as an enduring, fixed set of traits. Calling them Zero-Negative opens up new avenues for intervention.324

Fifth, John Bowlby’s remarkable concept of early secure attachment can be understood as an internal pot of gold. Although not a new idea, this is a new term, and it is a message that I never tire of hearing since when we fail to nurture young children with parental affection, we deprive them of the most valuable birthright we can give them and damage them almost irreversibly. Such effects are not always evident in childhood or even adolescence and young adulthood, but they can come back to bite the individual in midlife, like a lead boomerang in the back of the head. Certain forms of Zero-Negative surface only under the stresses of environmental triggers in later life, such as when becoming a parent. One reason I think we must continue to remind each new generation of parents of the importance of the internal pot of gold is that it represents one avenue of intervention to change the course of an individual life from Zero-Negative to healthy empathy.

Sixth, there are genes for empathy. As we saw in Chapter 5, environmental triggers interact with our genetic predispositions, and scientists are starting to discover particular genes that in far-reaching ways influence our empathy. I restate that these are not genes for empathy per se but are genes for proteins expressed in the brain that—through many small steps—are linked to empathy. These steps are still to be clarified, but we can already see from statistical analyses that genes exist that are associated with empathy. By itself, this discovery will upset those who want to believe empathy is wholly environmental, and to those people I say that the argument in this book is in fact a modest proposal: namely, that both biology and environment are important. Indeed, the idea that empathy is wholly environmental is a far more extreme and radical position to adopt.

Seventh, although most forms of zero degrees of empathy are clearly negative, one is (surprisingly) positive. The existence of Zero-Positive equates with what psychiatry calls “autism spectrum conditions” and implies that at least one form of zero degrees of empathy may have been positively selected in evolution because it goes hand in hand with strong systemizing. Some parents may, of course, object that classic autism has little to recommend it, and it is true that the coexisting conditions of severe learning difficulties, language delay, epilepsy, or self-injury are indeed disabilities that do not confer anything positive to the individual. But these are coexisting conditions and do not define the autism spectrum per se. When these are stripped away, as in Asperger Syndrome, we see individuals who, despite their empathy difficulties, are often strong systemizers, which can be remarkably positive.

Eighth, Zero-Positive is the result of a mind constantly striving to step out of time, to set aside the temporal dimension in order to see—in stark relief—the eternal repeating patterns in nature. Change represents the temporal dimension seeping into an otherwise perfectly predictable, systemizable world, where wheels spin round and round and round, levers can only move back and forth, or church bells peal in beautifully mathematical patterns. After many such repetitions the Zero-Positive person loses any sense of time because events are the same each time. Such a state is what I assume people with autism are referring to when they talk of “stimming.” They may become aware of the dimension of time only during events that contain novelty and that therefore violate expectations.

Ninth, the Zero-Positive mind finds change toxic. When such predictable patterns are interrupted, for example, by the existence of another person who might perform an unpredictable action (e.g., saying something unexpected or just moving), the Zero-Positive individual can find this aversive and even terrifying. Hence, Zero-Positives typically resist change at all costs. Classic autism is such a case of total resistance to change, a retreat into a perfectly systemizable—and thus perfectly predictable—world.

Finally, tenth, empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in school or parenting curricula 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 and befriend 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.325 And for every day that empathy is not employed in such corners of the world, more lives are and will be lost.

Outstanding Puzzles

But many questions remain. First, if different forms of zero degrees of empathy all involve abnormalities in the empathy circuit, why do different individuals end up with one form or another? One way to answer this is to compare and contrast the different forms of zero degrees of empathy in terms of their overlapping but unique profiles. Table 1 does this at the psychological level (fractionating each one in terms of whether both aspects of empathy, cognitive and affective, are impaired or intact and whether systemizing is impaired or intact). A similar exercise will one day be possible in terms of each of the ten brain regions, each of the “empathy genes,” and each of the environmental triggers. Zero-Positive splits into at least two subgroups because there are causal factors (again genetic and/or environmental) underlying language development and IQ, the two key dimensions distinguishing these two subgroups (classic autism versus Asperger Syndrome). But Table 1 gives an illustration of how an answer will be found.


Table 1: Distinct Profiles of the Empathy Disorders

Second, are there other forms of zero degrees of empathy? One way to answer this question is to pick a clear example of a different form that we have not yet discussed to show that the list is far from complete. For example, psychiatrist Janet Treasure at London’s Institute of Psychiatry has suggested that at least some cases of anorexia may be not just an eating disorder but also a form of autism.326 Her observation built on earlier ones by Swedish psychiatrist Chris Gillberg.327 Almost as soon as she pointed this out, many could see the importance of this theoretical shift in view: Although in individuals with anorexia we are struck by their severe weight loss and their restricted food intake, regarding this condition as primarily an eating disorder, this may place too much importance on surface features.

A characteristic of anorexia that many clinicians and parents instantly recognize is the self-centered lack of empathy, even though this is not one of the diagnostic criteria. While parents are beside themselves with worry as their daughter continues down the potentially fatal path of self-starvation, the girl herself may stubbornly insist she is happy with her body shape and weight. She may insist on eating separately from the rest of the family, more concerned with counting calories and weighing food to the nearest milligram than in fitting in with the family group. This inability to see another point of view looks a lot like another form of zero degrees of empathy.

Traditionally, psychiatry has viewed individuals with anorexia as showing “a total preoccupation with food and diet” and has viewed individuals with autism as showing “unusually narrow and restricted interests and extreme repetitive behavior,” assuming these are totally different sorts of phenomena. According to this new view, traditional psychiatry may be failing to see that both of these entail excellent attention to detail, strong systemizing, and an extreme narrow focus or obsession. Seen through this new lens, the individual with anorexia is “resistant to change” in the same way that someone with autism is. That in one case the repetitive behavior is in the domain of food and body shape, whereas in the other case it is in the domain of toy-car wheels spinning round and round may be irrelevant. On this argument, at least one subgroup of anorexia may benefit from being reconceptualized as having an eating disorder and as being Zero-Positive. This has very different treatment implications.

So although this book has considered three forms of Zero-Negative, there are undoubtedly others. Another example would be people with specific delusions, such as erotomania.a In this case someone believes that another person is in love with him when she is not (a condition famously described in Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love), and the person’s delusion prevents them from being sensitive to the other person’s feelings.

My next question is whether someone can have more than one form of zero degrees of empathy? The answer to this is a definite “yes.” The idea that there are different forms of Zero-Negative, and that these are distinct from Zero-Positive, should not be taken to imply that a single individual can have only one of these types. Certainly, I have met individuals who are both Zero-Positive and Type B. Other clinicians may well know of individuals who are both Type P and Type N. But the fact that an individual can have one type without the other is evidence of their independence and an argument for making these distinctions.

So many questions remain. Here’s another: Does someone who commits murder by definition lack empathy? I want to tell another story to help us see why the profession of psychiatry itself needs to rethink the importance of empathy.

Rethinking Psychiatry

I found myself sitting next to expert forensic psychiatrist Dr. Neil Hunt at a supper in St. John’s College in Cambridge one night. He told me he was the psychiatrist called out to assess Rekha Kumara-Baker, a mother who had stabbed her two daughters to death in the local village of Stretham on June 13, 2007. She explained in her court trial how she had become jealous of her ex-husband because, even though they were divorced in 2003, he had a new partner and she did not. She wanted to hurt her ex-husband and thought this would be the way to shatter his happiness.328

Neil had to determine if Rekha was suffering from any mental illness. He decided she was not. According to DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition),134 the book that sits on the desk of every psychiatrist throughout the world and that the psychiatrist consults to classify all “mental illnesses,” she did not fit into any of the available categories. Although she had felt some depression when she split up from her lover, at the time of the assessment (the day of the crime) she showed no signs of depression, anxiety, psychosis, long-standing personality disorder, or, indeed, any of the 297 disorders listed in DSM-IV. Therefore, according to Neil and according to how psychiatry conceptualizes people, she was not mentally ill. DSM-IV can only put people into one of two overarching categories: mentally ill or mentally normal. So by implication, if Rekha did not fit into any of the DSM categories, despite killing her two children, she had to be normal. I’m sure you can see the commonsense contradiction here and why I take issue with current psychiatry.

Of course, some might argue that another reason for deciding she was not mentally ill would be that if Neil had said she was mentally ill, this would have given Rekha grounds for pleading “diminished responsibility” and thus have the crime charged as manslaughter rather than murder. In the end the court accepted Neil’s expert opinion and found her guilty of murder, sentencing her to thirty-three years in prison. (She will thus not be eligible for parole until 2040, when she will be seventy-two.) I agree this is the kind of sentence that fits the horrific crime.

But I do think it shows up the limitations of DSM-IV and therefore of psychiatry if the prevailing diagnostic system categorizes this woman as normal. Sentencing is a matter for the court and ultimately the judge. Diagnosis is a matter for the doctor, in this case a psychiatrist. The two should be kept rigorously separate. That Rekha didn’t fit into any existing psychiatric category is not Neil’s fault. It is the fault of psychiatry itself.

In my view (and, I would venture, in the commonsense view) anyone who can stab her own daughter with the intent to kill is—by definitionnot psychologically normal. By definition they lack empathy, at least at the time of the crime. Even if Rekha had previously shown normal empathy, it must be the case that at the very moment she was climbing the stairs holding a kitchen knife, with the intent of stabbing her children, and at the very moment she plunged the knife into her daughters, she lacked empathy. Her empathy must have gone, just not been there. To me, the obvious conclusion is that the medical and psychiatric classification system is crying out for a category called “empathy disorders,” which is where Rekha would have naturally fitted. Even if she did not show the long-standing empathy impairment that would be required for a diagnosis of a personality disorder, at the very least she must have had a transient empathy disorder. The problem, however, is that the category of empathy disorder does not exist in DSM-IV, and as far as I know there are no plans for such a category to be created in the next edition (DSM-V) due to be published in 2012. Each edition of DSM introduces new categories that are needed and drops old categories that are no longer needed.b

I asked Neil, “So what was she like?” and he replied, “She was quite ordinary, quite normal.” “But, surely,” I argued, “the very fact that she stabbed her own child must mean she lacked empathy?” He replied, “Not really, because in psychiatry you can’t judge a person’s mind from their actions.” Here again, I had to politely disagree. To my mind, there are some actions that by definition reveal the mind behind them, and cold-blooded murder of an innocent child is one of them. I’m not arguing that once the action has been carried out, there is no need to interview or assess the person, as if her mind were transparent in the act. This is because at a minimum the law requires mens rea (the intent to commit the crime) as well as actus reus (the act itself). And there may be additional causes to ascertain (such as psychosis as a mitigating circumstance or stress as an aggravating factor). But my argument is that at the very least a lack of empathy was transparent in her action. The exception might be the legal defense of “automatism,” in which the individual is sleepwalking or acting without any awareness. So if we assume she was conscious, then her act was unempathic.

Now that we’ve started exploring the question about the relationship between cruel acts and criminal responsibility, this naturally leads to a related question: Should people with zero degrees of empathy be imprisoned if they commit a crime? This encompasses several different issues. First, the moral issue: If zero degrees of empathy is really a form of neurological disability, to what extent can such an individual who commits a crime be held responsible for what they have done? This gets tangled up with the free will debate, for if zero degrees of empathy leaves an individual to some extent “blind” to the impact of their actions on others’ feelings, then surely they deserve our sympathy rather than punishment.

My own view is that sometimes the crime is so bad (e.g., murder) that imprisonment is necessary for three reasons: to protect society from the risk that this individual will repeat the crime, to signal society’s disapproval of the crime, and to restore a sense of justice to the victim (or the victim’s family). I think all of these reasons for imprisonment can be justified. However, I have known individuals who have committed lesser crimes as a result of their zero degrees of empathy for whom I would argue prison is not the right place for them.

Take Gary McKinnon, the young British man who hacked into the Pentagon from his bedroom in his parent’s home in north London. When he appeared in our clinic with suspected Asperger Syndrome (which was confirmed), it became apparent that he had committed his crime because he was Zero-Positive. His strong drive to systemize enabled him to understand computers at a high level and to become obsessed with finding out what information the Pentagon kept on its computers and whether the information was true. That he did not attempt to hide his crime (he left notes on each computer he hacked into saying that he had called) suggests he did not feel he was doing anything wrong and also betrays his social naïveté. At the same time, his Zero-Positive status meant that at the time of his crime he was unable to imagine how the authorities would view his behavior or what the social consequences could be for him.

When I interviewed him, it was apparent that the risk of punishment was a sufficient deterrent such that I felt there was no risk of a repeat crime and that his actions had not been motivated by any sense of malice. Nor had he hurt anyone or caused damage to anyone’s property. The prospect of going to jail was terrifying for him, a socially isolated individual who suffered from clinical levels of depression and anxiety at the thought of life in prison. My view was that he posed no harm to society and that as a society we might choose to treat a person with the neurological condition of Asperger Syndrome with dignity, not punishing him but showing him compassion and understanding and offering him help. Going further, society might be better served by offering individuals like Gary a job, perhaps using his remarkable computer skills for the benefit of society, such as asking him to help the Pentagon and other institutions to improve their security systems.

A different case I was involved in was a man with suspected Asperger Syndrome who was being held in a secure prison in London for having followed a female stranger home from work and having touched her inappropriately. He was a fortyyear-old man who had never had a girlfriend, still lived with his mother, and didn’t understand that what he had done was inappropriate. Nor did he have the first clue what the victim’s feelings (of terror) would have been. Like Gary, he was suffering terribly in jail, not just because of his sensory hypersensitivity (the noise of a prison is deafening even to a typical individual) but also because of the social demands (being expected to share a prison cell with aggressive strangers and negotiate the verbal attacks from street-smart groups of prisoners in the canteen). To my mind, putting him in jail was like dropping a wheelchairbound individual with physical disabilities into a swimming pool and expecting them to cope. It was the wrong environment for him, despite the risk he could reoffend (he had zero understanding that what he had done was wrong). In a civilized, compassionate society we should be helping such individuals to find friendship, companionship, and other forms of comfort without jeopardizing anyone’s safety. I am impressed with efforts to develop such small, calm, compassionate, but secure communities as alternatives to traditional prisons.

The Banality of Evil

But let’s return to the nature of human cruelty. Does replacing the word “evil” with “empathy” really explain it? What are the alternative explanations? If we leave aside the religious concept of evil, which we have decided is not really a scientific explanation at all, the best-known alternative is political theorist Hannah Arendt’s analysis in terms of the “banality of evil.”329 Arendt was an observer in the Jerusalem court case of Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Endlosung der Judenfrage (the “final solution to the Jewish question”).330 During the trial it became clear to Arendt that this man was neither mad nor different from the rest of us. He was quite ordinary. It was in this sense that she coined the phrase “the banality of evil.”

The idea of the banality of evil also refers to ordinary factors that together can add up to an evil act. The concept stems from social psychological studies carried out by Solomon Asch, in which he demonstrated how “conformity” can occur such that people can say one line is longer because everyone else is asserting this, even though the evidence before their eyes shows to be the opposite.331 In the same tradition, an experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram showed that in “obedience to authority” ordinary people were willing to inflict apparent electric shocks on others to levels that would kill them.332 Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment is also in this tradition—students were randomly assigned the roles of guard or prisoner in a simulated prison, and those who were guards quickly started acting cruelly.333

In addition, the phrase “banality of evil” relates to the fact that tens of thousands of ordinary individual Germans were complicit in the Holocaust. Many of them could not be charged with war crimes later because they had just been doing their jobs, just following orders, or they had been responsible for only a tiny link in the chain. Eichmann and his fellow bureaucrats became immersed in the details of their plans, such as time-tabling the trains that transported Jews to the camps. They followed orders mechanically and unquestioningly. Psychologist Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men used Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment to explain the activities of the Reserve Police Battalion 101, a Nazi killing unit that murdered an estimated 40,000 Polish Jews in World War II. They were just following orders.334

Consider this simplification of the chain:

PERSON A: “I simply had the list of Jews in my municipality. I did not round up the Jews, but I did pass this list on when requested to do so.”

PERSON B: “I was told to go to these addresses, arrest these people, and take them to the train station. That’s all I did.”

PERSON C: “My job was to open the doors of the train—that was it.”

PERSON D: “My job was to direct the prisoners onto the train.”

PERSON E: “My job was to close the doors, not to ask where the train was going or why.”

PERSON F: “My job was simply to drive the train.”

[through all the other small links in the chain that could lead to ...]

PERSON Z: “My job was simply to turn on the showers out of which the poison gas was emitted.”

None of these individuals may have had overall responsibility for the design or implementation of the big crime, only one small part of it. Arendt’s term refers in part to how each of these small steps together brings about something awful, but that in isolation does not. Each is banal and does not warrant punishment. Likewise, none of Persons A, B, C through to Z may have had zero degrees of empathy; they may have been guilty of complicity, but having played their small part in the bigger sequence, they went home to their families or loved ones and expressed their empathy. The Nazi guard who shoots a prisoner in the daytime but then goes home at night, kisses his wife, and reads a bedtime story to his young child seems to embody the contradiction. The reasons for any one individual’s complicity may have been varied. Some may simply have been glad to have a job and have been afraid to lose it if they didn’t follow orders. Others may have possessed an encapsulated nationalist belief that entitled them to treat nonnationals in a certain way. Whatever the individual reason for an individual contribution to the bigger sequence, these may have been banal reasons.

The notion of the banality of evil has been challenged. David Cesarini argues that Hannah Arendt stayed only for the beginning of the trial, when Eichmann wanted to appear as ordinary as possible.335 In fact, had she stayed longer, she would have seen how he had exercised creativity in the murders he was not just blindly following orders. In this sense, Eichmann’s behavior needs explaining not just in terms of social forces (important as these are) but also in terms of individual factors (his reduced empathy).

We should be mindful that unempathic acts can have long-term consequences. Consider that back in 1542 Martin Luther wrote a pamphlet entitled Against the Jews (calling on Catholics to attack them) in which he advocated burning synagogues and destroying Jewish homes. Four hundred years later the young Adolf Hitler quoted Martin Luther in Mein Kampf to give his own Nazi racist views some respectability, going on to create the concentration camps like the one nine-year-old Thomas Buergenthal was in, with gas chambers that ended up killing 6 million Jews. This shows how dangerous it can be if small unempathic acts go unnoticed. My cousin Sacha (whose comic character Borat exposed contemporary anti-Semitism by posing as an anti-Semite himself) quotes Cambridge historian Ian Kershaw’s chilling phrase: “The path to Auschwitz was paved with indifference.”c

But let’s fast-forward to human cruelty of the present day. If you ask most people for their clearest example of “evil,” they would probably point to the terrorist—a person who can “dispassionately” kill innocent civilians to further his or her own political agenda. If my theory is correct, then we would have to say that terrorists have zero degrees of empathy. Is this true?

A twenty-six-year-old American hostage, Nick Berg, was beheaded on a video by a man calling himself Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants in Iraq. The men in the video said the decapitation was revenge for torture being carried out by Americans in the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad.337 We might say that a terrorist who kills someone because they feel their land is under occupation is acting for very different reasons from those of a psychopath. Can we judge the same act (murder) as arising from the same switching off of the empathy circuit?

Our inclination might be to condemn a suicide bomber who comes over the border from Gaza into Jerusalem and blows up a café full of innocent teenagers, but if we applied the same logic, we would have to also condemn Nelson Mandela when he was leader of Umkhonto We Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress. He coordinated the bombing of military and government buildings, hoping that no one would get hurt but all the while recognizing that innocent people might get caught up in the blast. Equally, we would have to condemn Menachem Begin when he was leader of Irgun, a militant offshoot of the Haganah, who blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946, killing ninety-one people and injuring forty-six others, in an attempt to persuade the British to leave Palestine as part of the Zionist cause to create a Jewish homeland. Just as Mandela later became president of South Africa and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, so Begin later became prime minister of Israel and joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize with Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat.

The target of the terrorist’s unempathic act is often selected because of the terrorist’s belief (e.g., a belief that freedom and identity are being threatened), so the act is not necessarily the result of an empathy deficit. The belief and/or the actual political context may drive the behavior. Nevertheless, at the moment of the act one has to recognize that the terrorist’s empathy is switched off. In flying a plane into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, an individual (driven by a belief) no longer cares about the welfare and feelings of his victims. Tony Blair famously said when he gave the order to invade Iraq that “history will forgive us,”338 but we cannot judge an act only by its distant outcomes while ignoring its immediate outcomes. The act itself may be unempathic irrespective of whether the ends justify the means.

There are, of course, degrees of violence. Murder may be an extreme case, and throwing a stone at someone may be a lesser case. This begs the question as to whether there are degrees of Zero-Negative. Some forms of verbal abuse are not as hurtful as some forms of physical abuse. Shouting at, humiliating, or offending someone can upset, frighten, or anger them, but raping or physically attacking or torturing them can do all of these and injure and traumatize them or even kill them. One would not want to say that making a social faux pas is as bad as mugging someone. But can we really line up degrees of poor empathy? The Empathy Quotient (EQ) is one method that attempts to quantify how little or how much empathy a person has, but whether it distinguishes these different forms of low empathy remains to be validated. Equally, at the level of neural activity in the empathy circuit, it would be interesting to compare the brains of those who commit mild but nevertheless inconsiderate unempathic acts (such as not bothering to flush the toilet for the next person) with those who commit more serious unempathic acts (such as mugging people). My prediction is that there would be degrees of underactivity in the empathy circuit in all these brains, with the more serious forms showing even less activity in this circuit relative to the milder cases, but with both below the average for the general population.

I want to raise a deeper question about our human nature: Are we all capable of killing? According to the theory I have been developing in this book, it is only individuals with low empathy (that is, individuals whose empathy is temporarily or permanently shut down) who could attack or kill another person. Whether we are talking about “premeditated” or unpremeditated murder, the proposal is that such acts require a shutting off of empathy, either as a consequence of genes, early experience, or current state. This means that most people would not be capable of such cruel acts precisely because of their average or above-average empathy levels. (“Current state” could include, for example, murder committed in the heat of an emotion [a “crime of passion”], murder committed in self-defense, or murder committed in a “blind rage” to protect a loved one. Equally, it could include a crime committed during a transient psychotic illness.) Whatever the cause, the theory is that the very same empathy circuit must be affected.

Columbia University forensic psychiatrist Michael Stone formulated a twenty-two-point scale of evil (summarized in the notes at the end of this book) to distinguish cases of Zero-Negative people who end up in jail for murder.d It is an attempt at a classification of types of murder/violent crime but reads as more of a list of the causes of murder and violence (including situational causes); the twenty-two categories are unlikely to correspond to twenty-two meaningful distinctions within the brain.

The Underactive Empathy Circuit

But back to the key question behind this book: Does Zero-Negative explain human cruelty? To answer this question, we need to look at actual cases of cruelty and ask whether, despite their surface differences, they all could arise from the same underlying neural empathy circuit being underactive. Not all the data are yet in to answer this question, but the claim is exactly this. In Chapter 1 we surveyed many types of “evil” acts. We can assume that whatever the nature of the act (be it physical unempathic acts [physical violence, murder, torture, rape, genocide, etc.] or nonphysical unempathic acts [deception, mockery, verbal abuse, etc.]), at the very moment of the act the empathy circuit “goes down.” In an otherwise normal individual, this may be a transient turning off of the system. In someone who is Type B, P, or N, the empathy system may be permanently down.

This raises the question as to how the empathy circuit could be switched off irreversibly or at least in a long-term fashion. We saw in Chapter 3 how a range of early environmental factors (e.g., emotional abuse and neglect) can deplete our “internal pot of gold”—our sense of self-worth and ability to trust people or form secure attachments to others. Equally, in Chapter 5 we saw how a range of genes can affect empathy, presumably by affecting the empathy circuit. Some of these genetic and environmental factors also affect molecular pathways, such as the sex steroid hormonal system, with the result of having permanent, organizational effects on brain development.

The concept of “organizational” effects in neuroscience echoes the concept of “critical” or “sensitive” periods in developmental psychology.e We saw that the prenatal sex steroid hormones (including testosterone) have effects on the developing brain that appear irreversible. The higher a fetus’s prenatal testosterone is, the more the brain is masculinized toward stronger systemizing and weaker empathy.299,341 So back to the range of “evil” acts: Are they all the result of such early environmental (emotional deprivation) or biological factors (genes and/or hormones, neurotransmitters, etc.) affecting the empathy circuit?

Josef Fritzl, you recall, repeatedly raped his daughter Elisabeth, whom he had imprisoned for twenty-four years. After listening to ten hours of videotaped evidence from her at the Austrian trial, he said, “I realized for the first time how cruel I was to Elisabeth.” Clearly this was a man in whom empathy did not come naturally because he began to figure it out only when another person’s pain—his own daughter’s—was rammed down his throat. Psychiatrist Adelheid Kastner gave evidence at the trial and said that in his opinion Fritzl had been “born to rape,” implying some innate factor. It may be that in the future such cases of Zero-Negative will be genetically tested so that we can understand which of the suite of genes contributes to such extremes of low empathy. Equally, Kastner attested that Fritzl’s behavior was rooted in his childhood because he had been repeatedly beaten by his mother.342

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold carried out the notorious killings of their classmates and teachers at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Their homemade bombs were badly wired but were intended to kill six hundred people in the cafeteria. Consistent with the Zero-Negative theory, Klebold was a depressive, suicidal character (which is at least compatible with him being Type B), whereas Harris was a classic psychopath (Type P), a diagnosis confirmed by psychologist Robert Hare. Harris wrote in his journal, “Isn’t America supposed to be the land of the free? How come, if I’m free, I can’t deprive a stupid fucking dumbshit of his possessions if he leaves them sitting on the front seat of his fucking van out in plain sight and in the middle of fucking nowhere on a Frifuckingday night? Natural selection. Fucker should be shot.”343

Sadly, there is no end to such examples of zero degrees of empathy. Even though we cannot test the theory in each individual case, the early development and/or psychological profiles of those who commit such crimes frequently, if not invariably, involve such risk factors.

The Potential for Change

My next question concerns whether, if empathy is missing in childhood or adolescence, can it develop later? Melissa Todorovic is in a Toronto prison for being the “puppeteer” behind a murder.344 At age fifteen she persuaded her seventeen-year-old boyfriend (known as DB and who has mild learning difficulties) to stab a girl called Stefanie Rengel, whom she had never met but of whom she was jealous. After months of Melissa nagging him and threatening to withhold sexual favors, DB agreed to her request. He lured Stefanie out of her parents’ house and stabbed her six times.345 He told Melissa what he had done, and she then phoned Stefanie’s phone to check she was really dead. Having confirmed he had done what she ordered, she then agreed to have sex with him. Stefanie died, and the courts ruled that Melissa was as guilty as her boyfriend in having had the mens rea (intention to commit the act) even if she did not commit the actual act (actus reus). She was deemed to be guilty of conspiracy. Two years on she still felt no remorse. Psychologists and psychiatrists examining her case argued that because the adolescent brain is still developing as late as age twenty-five, we should keep an open mind to the possibility that she was simply suffering an extreme developmental delay in her empathy.346

As we saw in Chapter 3, such examples of conduct disorder strongly predict Type P (psychopathic personality disorder). The fact that this is not seen in 100 percent of cases means that a subgroup of those who commit extreme crimes of this kind do eventually develop sufficient self-control, emotion regulation, and/or moral awareness to change their path onto a more empathic one. I suspect this subgroup is rare.

So what of the issue of prison sentencing? This may ignore the scientific evidence and instead focus on the feelings of the victim’s family. Sitting around a Friday night dinner table in Toronto, we discussed Melissa Todorovic’s case. How should society react? Every opinion was represented at the table. At one extreme was Lynn’s view: “If she’s taken a life, then she loses the right to her own life. A life sentence should mean just that. Throw away the key and let her rot in jail!”

At the other extreme was Avi’s view: Even those who commit evil crimes should be given a chance to recognize their “mistakes” and learn from them. “Peter Sutcliffe [the Yorkshire Ripper, who killed thirteen women, many of them working as prostitutes, and attacked others]f has been in prison for almost thirty years. He should be allowed to enjoy some years of freedom—he’s paid a fair price.”

I certainly situate myself closer to this end of the spectrum of opinion. I remember sitting in the Beth Shalom synagogue in Cambridge on the night of Kol Nidre. Peter Lipton, a friend and an atheist philosopher, was giving a sermon on the theme of “atonement:” “If we treat another person as essentially bad, we dehumanize him or her. If we take the view that every human being has some good in them, even if it is only 0.1 percent of their makeup, then by focusing on their good part, we humanize them. By acknowledging and attending to and rewarding their good part, we allow it to grow, like a small flower in a desert.”

I found it a provocative idea because the implication of this attitude is that no one—however evil we paint them to be—should be treated as 100 percent bad or as beyond responding to a humane approach. The question is whether we can push this notion to its logical conclusion: If unambiguously “evil” individuals (a candidate for this category might be Hitler) felt remorse for their crimes and had been punished, would we try to focus on their good qualities, with an intent to rehabilitate them? My own view is that we should do this—no matter how bad their crime. It is the only way we can establish that we are showing empathy to the perpetrator, not just repeating the crime of turning the perpetrator into an object and thus dehumanizing them. To do that renders us no better than the person we punish.

As I write this, Ronnie Lee Gardner (a convicted murderer) has been executed by a firing squad in the state of Utah. By all accounts, he had faced up to his own guilt and had spent his adult life trying to help keep other young people from experiencing the kind of neglect and abuse that he had experienced and that had contributed to his crimes. But despite this apparent change in him as he grew older, the state of Utah judiciary felt he had to be killed. What interests me as a non-American is— even in the modern USA—it is possible to find five police officers who will volunteer for the task of executioner, to shoot an unarmed prisoner tied to a chair. Even more striking to me was that a doctor placed a disc above Ronnie’s heart to serve as a target for the executioners. Did this doctor think he was doing his or her job as a doctor? Where was the empathy in the judge who sentenced Ronnie to die or in the executioners who pulled the trigger? His niece wept at his death, seeing him as a person who was loved.

As you can tell, I am against the death penalty. It is not just barbaric (and, ironically, makes the state as unempathic as the person it seeks to punish), but it closes down the possibility of change or development within the individual. We know there is already evidence that components of empathy (such as emotion recognition) can be learned.322,347,348 These methods only scratch the surface in terms of what could be tried, and we need to remain open-minded about whether other aspects of empathy—beyond emotion recognition—can be taught and learned. Counseling and other psychological therapies, such as roleplaying techniques, purport to aim to encourage empathy, and it would be valuable to have systematic studies to show if these are working. The extent to which these can work for people at different points on the empathy curve also needs to be tested. For example, it would not be surprising if someone who is slightly below average in the EQ slightly boosted their empathy following intervention. Whether someone who is truly at zero degrees of empathy can be helped to acquire it, and if so, whether this empathy can ever reach “normal” levels remains to be established.


In Chapter 2 we saw how empathy is distributed along a normal bell curve. Up until now we have considered the zero extreme and hardly touched on the other extreme of empathy, those with super-levels. What are these people like? Zurich neuroscientist Tania Singer gave a presentation on this topic in a beautiful conference center in Erice in Sicily. She had scanned the brain of a Buddhist monk who had spent his adult life learning to control his reaction to both his own pain and that of others. He could remain calm and peaceful when he was sitting for long periods of time in uncomfortable positions, he could control his heart rate via meditation, and he could show empathy toward any living person or animal. Tania demonstrated that when the monk viewed other people’s facial expressions, his brain was in a state of hyperactivity in the empathy circuit.

At the end of her fascinating lecture, I asked her whether we really could conclude that the monk’s behavior comprised super-empathy. She elegantly argued that if the monk was suppressing the self-aspects of the pain matrix in the brain (and the brain scans suggested this was the case), then perhaps the overactivity in his empathy circuit could indicate that he could tune in exclusively to the other person’s emotional states, setting aside his own. On the face of it, this was an excellent demonstration of the suppression of the mirror neuron system and of superior empathy.

But I remain unconvinced by this interpretation. First, if someone can suppress their own pain sensations, even though that might be a useful skill on the battlefield or in competitive sports, it is not clear that this suppression is required for superempathy. Second, if you suppress your appropriate emotional response to another person’s pain, how is that empathic? Whatever the monk was doing, and it was clearly abnormal, it doesn’t fit my definition of empathy. If you go through a series of changing emotions, from pleasure to pain, and a Buddhist monk smiles calmly at you as your emotions change, as if to say, “I accept you nonjudgmentally,” I think this would feel bizarre. At the very least, if you were in pain, then an expression of sympathy might be nice to see and feel to show that he cared. The detachment of the normal empathic response to my mind disqualifies the monk from being a candidate for a super-empathizer.

Some people have tried to convince me that super-empathy would be an unpleasant state to be in because one would be in a permanent state of distress at anyone else’s distress in the vicinity or even via hearsay. It could be both overwhelming and even depressing to be emotionally responding to such a lot of sadness, especially if the mirror neuron system induces a similar emotion in oneself to that being expressed by another person. I think this is an intriguing notion, that super-empathy might itself be maladaptive, but again I remain skeptical because if an individual is overwhelmed to the point of not being able to separate their own emotions from someone else’s, in what sense can they be said to have super-empathy? In such a state of confusion they may simply be distressed rather than empathic.


Figure 11: Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa

Having spent some time discussing what I think superempathy is not, it behooves me to say what I think super-empathy might be. Recall Hannah in Chapter 2, the psychotherapist who rapidly tuned into anyone’s feelings and who verbalized their feelings with sensitivity and with great accuracy. To my mind, this is a good candidate for someone whose Empathizing Mechanism is tuned at Level 6. A second candidate for someone with super-empathy is Archbishop Desmond Tutu (see Figure 11). In a recent documentary discussing his remarkable role in the anti-Apartheid struggle, as he sat in the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings listening to black victims telling their personal stories to the white police officers and prison guards who had tortured or killed their loved ones, Tutu had to visibly bite his own hand to stop himself from crying out loud, so strong was his desire to express the pain and distress he felt at hearing of another person’s pain and distress.349 But as he explained in the interview, these hearings were to acknowledge the victims’ emotions, not his. To have openly wept would have been to make his own emotions the focus of attention and to take away attention from those of the victim. For this reason he stifled his deep upset as best he could.

Recognizing that the white guards and officers, too, needed the opportunity to experience forgiveness was partly motivated by his deep religious sense, but it was also a recognition that even the aggressor was a person who deserved dignity and the opportunity to show remorse. But he acknowledged that remorse was not always possible. He recalled how the then Minister of Justice James Kruger said of the death of black activist Steve Biko, “His death left me cold.”350 Tutu asked, as I have in this book, what has happened to a man that he feels nothing at the death of another human being? As far as I know, the brains of individuals like Hannah or Tutu have never been scanned, but we can make a clear prediction: That they would show overactivity of the very same empathy circuit that is underactive in those who are Zero-Negative.

Clearly, being Zero-Negative is not a good state. My speculation about the opposite extreme, super-empathy, is that this is wholly positive, but this may be true only from a very altruistic perspective. Altruism, however, is not necessarily a sustainable lifestyle 24/7. If you focus only on others, there is a risk that you neglect your own needs. Too much of a focus on your own needs could result in self-centeredness, which itself carries dangers of becoming isolated from social support. Presumably, the reason that empathy is a bell curve (with the majority of people showing moderate, rather than high, levels of empathy) is because moderate empathy levels are most adaptive. Being too other-centered means one would never pursue one’s own ambitions, or act competitively, for fear of upsetting or diminishing others. Being too self-centered has the advantage of pursing one’s own ambitions to the exclusion of all else, where the payoff may be considerable (especially in the world of business/in the accumulation of resources), but while the “ruthless bastard” may become richer or more powerful, he or she also makes more enemies in the process. Striking the balance at majority levels of empathy may be an evolved adaption that confers on the individual the benefits of empathy without its disadvantages.

I would be horrified if readers of this book took from it the conclusion that empathy is better than logic since I hope I have argued convincingly that both have their value. In the case of Zero-Positive, we see the value of logic (strong systemizing) in stark relief. And when it comes to problem-solving, clearly many situations require both logic and empathy. They are not mutually exclusive. Whether the conflict is domestic, in the workplace, or in international relations, the combination of logic and empathy has a lot to recommend it. This somewhat obvious claim nevertheless needs to be made simply because of the neglect of empathy in many scenarios.

My definition of reduced empathy (in Chapter 1) is when we cease to treat another person as a person, with their own feelings, and start to treat them as an object. But it could be reasonably asked: Don’t we all do this all the time to each other? We enjoy a friendship because the person gives us something, we enjoy a sexual relationship because the person’s body is an object, we employ a person because they provide a service we need, and we might enjoy watching someone for their beauty or athletic grace. These all involve aspects of the person as an object.

My reply to this would be that if our empathy is turned on, then all the while we are treating the person as an object, we are simultaneously aware of or sensitive to their feelings. If their emotional state changed, such that they were suddenly upset, we would not just continue with our current activity, but we would check what was wrong and what they might need. If the friendship is based purely on what we gain from the relationship, such that we abandon the person when they are unable to still provide that, that would be not just a shallow relationship, but an unempathic one. But I should qualify the definition of empathy by adding that the point at which we objectify another person while simultaneously switching off our sensitivity to his emotions is the starting point toward zero degrees of empathy. It is not the end point because as we have seen in the catalog of crimes that people commit, such a state of mind simply makes it possible to behave in more and more hurtful ways.

Empathy as an Underutilized Resource

One of my motivations for writing this book was to persuade you that empathy is one of the most valuable resources in our world. Erosion of empathy is an important global issue related to the health of our communities, be they small (like families) or big (like nations). Families can be torn apart by brothers who can no longer talk to each other, or couples who have developed an awful mistrust of each other, or a child and parent who misunderstand each other’s intentions. Without empathy we risk the breakdown of relationships, we become capable of hurting others, and we can cause conflict. With empathy we have a resource to resolve conflict, increase community cohesion, and dissolve another person’s pain.

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. This book follows on the heels of Jeremy Rifkin’s historical account The Empathic Civilization and Frans de Waal’s evolutionary account The Age of Empathy in putting empathy back on the agenda.351,312 But, until recently, neuroscientists hardly questioned what empathy is. I hope that by now, you will realize what a powerful resource we as a species have, at our very fingertips, if only we prioritize it.

In case this talk about the power of empathy seems to lack real-world implications, let’s bring it down to earth by considering the breakdown of a relationship between two nations: Israel and Palestine, which raged right through most of the twentieth century and continues with no sign of abating. If only each community could see the other’s point of view and empathize.

The early Zionists, in part, were Jewish refugees fleeing waves of anti-Semitism, many of whose families had been persecuted in the Russian pogroms of the nineteenth century and the Nazi final solution in the twentieth. My grandfather Michael Greenblatt was one such early Zionist, who fled Lithuanian pogroms at the age of six, arriving by boat into the city of Montreal in 1906. Whenever I visited my grandfather, he was busy fund-raising to help the creation of the new homeland of Israel. He became active in the exciting project of building a worldclass Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Israel has enjoyed remarkable successes, creating cities with worldclass hospitals, orchestras, and research centers, but from the outset the nation became embroiled in a tragic string of military conflicts. Remarkably, just one day after the State of Israel was founded in 1948, it was invaded by its Arab neighbors. Why?

In part it may have been because many Palestinians understandably felt displaced by the creation of the state of Israel, a consequence that was perhaps underestimated by the United Nations who authorized the new state. Whatever the original cause, the consequence has been sixty years of Palestinian bombers and Israeli tanks in a cycle of tit-for-tat attacks, leading to ever more human suffering. By this point in the cycle, many on both sides see only their own point of view and—in this sense—have lost their empathy for the other. It is clear that military solutions have not worked, and I argue that the only way forward will be through empathy. Fortunately, there is evidence that those in the Middle East have not lost their empathy in any permanent or enduring way. I sat in Alyth Gardens synagogue in Golders Green 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 Aleikem.”

I was shocked: 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 up the opportunity offered by a charity called the Parents Circle for Israelis and Palestinians to make free phone calls directly into each other’s homes to express their empathy to bereaved parents on the other side of the barbed-wire fence.g 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 on 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.

Moishe told Ahmed, “We are the same: we have both lost our son. Your pain is my pain.” And Ahmed replied, “This suffering must end before there are more fathers like you and me who come to know the awful pain of losing a beloved son.”

The two fathers now tour mosques and synagogues internationally, raising awareness of the need for empathy and fund-raising for the charity. Of course, this is just a tiny step, but each drop of empathy waters the flower of peace.h

Empathy is a universal solvent.i 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 a neighbor. I hope you have been persuaded that this resource is a better way to resolve problems than the alternatives (such as guns, laws, or religion). And unlike the arms industry, which costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison industry and legal system, which cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free. And unlike religion, empathy cannot by definition oppress anyone.