NOTES - 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)



a I’ve changed her name here because I have not been able to find her to seek her consent to use her real name.

b The professor regretted that the data had been collected in such inhumane conditions but felt the information was still worth presenting in his lecture some forty years later because much had been learned from it. I was personally repulsed by this use of data—even for medical teaching—feeling that the ends did not justify the means. Unethical science is unethical science.

c Buergenthal grew up to help found UNICEF and is now a judge in The Hague, where he has spent more than forty years working in human rights.

d Sounds paradoxical, doesn’t it? To make this more concrete, if while organizing a project you turn to your child who is feeling upset and say, “I can’t talk to you now—I’m late for work,” at that very moment you have switched off your empathy.

e Esther’s husband was hacked to death by the machete-wielding child rebels. Fifty-six people were killed on that July night, many more injured.


a My colleague Alan Leslie, now a professor in Rutgers University, developed a fascinating theory when I worked with him in London in the 1980s. Called metarepresentation, this theory provides a nice mechanism for this “double-mindedness” because it involves your own (primary) representation of the world and a representation of someone else’s representation of the world.11

b Let’s split hairs for a second (always a favorite party game). Supposing I see you struggle with the suitcase, I experience a pang of sympathy, but I turn away. I would say that I have still empathized. Acting on an empathic response is, I think, a third stage (beyond recognition and response) that is not an intrinsic part of empathy. The desire to help alleviate another person’s suffering should be part of empathy, but whether you actually do anything about it is subject to a 101 different factors. (Do you have the means to help? Are you physically close enough to help? Can you stop doing what you are currently doing? Do you believe that someone else will intervene instead?)

So if you have experienced the appropriate emotion (e.g., “I sympathize with your predicament and wish I could help”), that’s enough to say that you empathized. If, however, you only half-experienced the appropriate emotion (e.g., “I sympathize with your predicament, but I don’t really care what happens to you”), that’s not enough to count as empathy. The emotional response phase of empathy has to be the full-blown thing, the full monty. Half-hearted empathy is not really empathy at all.

c The main measure of empathy is the widely used Interpersonal Reactivity Index.10 Although the index produces a nice normal distribution, it measures more than just empathy. For example, it contains questions about how easily you fantasize, and although interesting, this is not directly relevant to empathy.

d I have divided the empathy bell curve into seven levels, but this division is somewhat arbitrary because all of our research to date suggests it is truly a continuum, a seamless dimension. But these seven levels are nevertheless useful constructs because they help to bring out some qualitative differences that arise along the empathy bell curve, differences that may be less apparent if a purely incremental, quantitative approach is taken.

e Barbara Oakley has edited an interesting book on pathological altruism, a state in which people are so moved by other’s emotions that they are overwhelmed by them. I don’t see that those at Level 6 (super-empathy) necessarily have to suffer from the amount they empathize, though this may be relevant to a subgroup. Those at Level 6 warrant more study in their own right.18

f Mike Lombardo correctly points out that these two functions of the vMPFC do not involve the very same area: Coding of the emotional valence occurs slightly farther back in the brain, whereas the self-awareness function is slightly more toward the front of the brain.

g There is a debate about whether he lost his empathy or lost the ability for self-regulation. To me these are very much entwined. Patients with lesions in this area have difficulty in using their own emotions to guide appropriate social behavior, and this type of process is one that is critical in responding to another’s emotion with the appropriate emotion.31-33

h A later CT scan suggests Phineas’s brain damage was more on the left side. His case is consistent with damage to a part of his empathy circuit, although from such a historic case it is hard to know if he suffered only loss of empathy or if he lost other skills (such as planning).

i Some people have “mirror-touch synesthesia,” in which they consciously feel touched simply by viewing others being touched. These individuals have heightened empathy ability.66

j This is the so-called P45 electrophysiological response.

k Single neurons have been recorded in patients with epilepsy, and in these patients it was recently shown that mirror neurons do exist in the human brain.73

l Most scientists agree the amygdala has at least two major divisions: the basolateral (BLA) and the central nuclei (CeN). The CeN is involved in programming the response to a conditioned stimulus, whereas the BLA is involved primarily in the pairing of an emotional tone to a conditioned stimulus. Joe LeDoux and Cambridge neuroscientist Barry Everitt and their colleagues demonstrated this in animals.81,82

m When Joe heard I played in a band too, he suggested we have a jamming session at my house. I invited Bhisma to come along because we had been studying the brain basis of empathy together. Bhisma plays Indian drums (tabla); Joe plays rhythm guitar. By good fortune, Joe’s colleague neuroscientist Daniela Schiller is the drummer of the Amygdaloids and she had arrived from her home country of Israel, so she got out her drumsticks. I got out my bass guitar. We had a lot of fun playing music together.

n Some argue that the posterior cingulate cortex (or precuneus) and anterior temporal lobe are also involved in understanding other’s beliefs, so we should keep in mind that the empathy circuit may well ultimately include more than ten regions. 19,20,52,87,88

o See 42,44,47-49,51-65,71-74

p See 20-22,24-27,52,87,89-92


a He was only eleven years old when he had to flee with his family from Nazi Germany (in 1939).

b Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, also called 5-HT, and it is the 5-HT2A receptor. Type B also shows a reduced response to the drug d or d,l fenfluramine, which normally triggers serotonin release. And when scientists get the chance to look (in postmortem studies) at the brain of someone who has committed suicide, they find there are more serotonin receptor binding sites in the prefrontal cortex but fewer on the presynaptic side of nerves that use serotonin (so-called serotinergic nerve terminals). The serotonin system is not the only neurotransmitter abnormality in Type B, however, as dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, monoamine oxidase, and HPA or thyrotropin-releasing hormone activity have all also been found to be abnormal.

c English has a word that is a bit milder: the verb “to gloat.”133

d Hervey Cleckley became professor of psychiatry at the University of Georgia Medical School in Augusta in 1937. By coincidence, this was the same year my grandfather’s brother Robert Greenblatt became professor of endocrinology there.

e As an aside, it is interesting to consider who judges an experiment as unethical. In Chapter 1 I was clearly condemning of the Nazi experiments that tested how long a person could tolerate freezing water, yet here I seem to be willing to justify Harlow’s and Hinde’s monkey experiments. I suspect I am guilty of a double standard when it comes to human versus animal research. I know that some adopt an even more stringent view on the ethics of animal experimentation.

f I remember my first visit to Denmark, a country that has highly developed social care. On the train a whole compartment was set aside as a special play area for young children, with soft toys in bright colors in a special zone where children could be watched by their parents and could feel happy. Trains in my own country, England, have no such facilities because it means giving up seats that could be generating income for the train company. It is worth keeping in mind that whenever we see modifications to our environment that are child-friendly, these in all likelihood owe their existence to Bowlby’s theory.

g The septo-hippocampal system links the septum, the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the fornix into a circuit. It is also thought of as the behavioral inhibition circuit, and abnormalities in this circuit are linked to anxiety disorders. viii. This is a questionnaire devised by Robert Hare. This result was particularly seen on the “callous” and “unemotional interpersonal” subscales.


a The mirror neuron hypothesis of autism is still an area of debate because atypical functioning of this system is not always found in autism.216-217

b Dopamine and serotonin binding in the vMPFC are also reduced in autism, as are glucose metabolism and regional cerebral blood flow.226-229 Monk, C., Scott, P., Wiggins, J., Weng, S., Carrasco, M., Risi, S., and Lord, C. (2009). Abnormalities of intrinsic functional connectivity in autism spectrum disorders. Neuroimage, 47, 764-772.

c This work has led to the idea that the same underlying neural mechanism causes both difficulties in thinking about one’s own mind and someone else’s mind. Mike Lombardo tested this and found that the RTPJ/pSTS was underactive in autism during both mentalizing about oneself and others. Thus, RTPJ/pSTS seems to be a common neural mechanism that could explain mindblindness for self and other.237


a CNR1 has effects on several neurotransmitters (such as dopamine and GABA).

b The work on fetal testosterone was the subject of an academic monograph I wrote with two of my PhD students, entitled Prenatal Testosterone in Mind.298-299

c Some of these are genes involved in the synthesis of testosterone or estrogen, others are involved in the transport of these hormones, and yet others are involved in the receptors for these hormones.

d This is involved in making the protein wolframin, needed in many systems throughout the body. Variations in this gene are associated with depression.

e NTRK1 codes for one of the receptors for neurotrophins that ensure neuronal survival in the developing brain. NTRK1 also plays a role in differentiating sensory neurons.

f GABRB3 is mutated in a syndrome on the autistic spectrum called Angelman syndrome and affects the transmission of the neurotransmitter GABA, levels of which influence inhibition of neural activity.

g More recent work with mice has shown the involvement of calcium channel genes linked to social learning of fear.309


a Erotomania is also known as De Clerambault’s syndrome.

b The famous example of the latter is how homosexuality was a psychiatric category (a mental illness) in DSM-II but was dropped in DSM-III in the 1973 after gay rights protests at an American Psychiatric Association conference. There was a recognition that those with a different sexual orientation are not “ill” and certainly not in need of treatment, as used to be thought.

c The original quote from Ian Kershaw was “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.”336

d Stone’s twenty-two types of killers are listed here:

1. killing in self-defense

2. jealous lovers

3. willing companions of killers

4. killing loved ones out of jealousy

5. drug addicts

6. hotheaded

7. Type N

8. those whose smoldering rage is ignited

9. jealous lovers with psychopathic features

10. killing people who are in the way/witnesses

11. are as in 10 but Type P

12. Type P when cornered

13. inadequate personalities

14. Type P schemers

15. Type P multiple murders

16. Type P committing multiple vicious acts

17. Sexually perverse serial murderers, torture-murderers, and rapists who murder to hide the evidence

18. Torture-murderers

19. Other Type P

20. Type P torturers

21. Type P preoccupied with torture

22. Type P serial torture-murderers

We can see how those at levels 1-8 might have been violent as a result of an extreme temporary fluctuation in their state of empathy; those at levels 14-22 as a result of a permanent lack of empathy; and those at levels 9-13 as a result of a location somewhere in between. If correct, it may be more fruitful to predict two or three levels of degrees of deficit in the empathy circuit among such violent offenders. This is both a more feasible prediction (scanning studies cannot realistically compare twenty-two groups because of cost, but they can compare three groups) and more likely to be psychologically and neurologically more meaningful. This might correspond to Levels 0-2 of the Empathizing Mechanism (see Chapter 2).

e There are three well-demonstrated, classical examples of critical or sensitive periods in psychology. First, ethologist Konrad Lorenz demonstrated how newborn chicks would imprint and follow the first thing they saw after hatching from the egg and that this kind of bonding was irreversible. Second, vision neuroscientist Colin Blakemore demonstrated that depriving a kitten of visual input in the first week of life led to irreversible forms of cortical blindness because of an interruption of the critical period for the development of visual pathways (including development of sensory receptive fields in the brain). Third, studies of children deprived of language input in the first five to ten years of life were less likely to learn language as fluently.339,340

f Peter Sutcliffe, convicted in 1981, was a loner in childhood and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, having heard voices from God and from a graveyard where he worked, telling him to kill the women. Despite his psychiatric diagnosis, he was sentenced to a nonpsychiatric prison (Parkhurst), where he was attacked by a fellow prisoner who plunged a broken coffee jar into Sutcliffe’s face. After this Sutcliffe was transferred to the psychiatric prison of Broadmoor under the Mental Health Act. He has also been attacked there at least twice. On February 17, 2009, according to the Daily Telegraph, Sutcliffe was reported to be “fit to leave Broadmoor.”

g See for documented examples of this kind from individual families on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. The names of the individuals given in this example have been changed.

h The Hand in Hand educational model brings Israeli Arab and Jewish children together in mixed schools to contribute to better mutual understanding (

i Philosopher D aniel Dennett came up with the idea of a universal acid, a substance so dangerous that it could not even been kept in a container as it would corrode anything it touched.352 (He was referring to the idea of Darwinism as unstoppable, an idea that could penetrate any field.) I think of empathy as the opposite of universal acid, a universal solvent. In chemistry a solution is created when something potentially soluble (the solute) is put into something that can create a solution (the solvent), with the result of producing a stable equilibrium. Sugar in tea is an obvious example.


a Having extreme reactive aggression is not the same as being a psychopath or having antisocial personality disorder. There is another psychiatric condition with the memorable name “intermittent explosive disorder” or “impulsive aggressive disorder.” This is thought to be the result of poor executive control over the regulatory systems that ordinarily dampen down reactive aggression. This is different from the behavior of psychopaths because the person shows only one symptom (the angry outbursts) without all the other characteristics.