1 Aug 2012

Zero Degrees of Empathy

Posted by jofr

A few weeks ago we examined the relation between the mysterious (the hard problem of subjective experience) and the obvious (the core of show business is the creation of exactly these subjective experiences). Unlike philosophers in academic ivory towers, people are usually able to imagine what it is like to be someone or something.

The process is named empathy: empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. But there are exceptions. People who are not moved at all by the short film above are rare, but they certainly exist. There are also people which are unable to feel any degree of empathy at all: people who struggle with autism or have an antisocial personal disorder. Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University, argued in his book ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy‘ (Penguin, 2011) that autistic people have difficulty with cognitive empathy, while sociopaths, extremely selfish people and other people with antisocial personal disorders have difficulty with experiencing affective empathy.

The difference between cognitive and affective empathy is as follows: Cognitive empathy means a person is able think others’ thoughts, to imagine how another person might be thinking in a certain situation, and how the inner thoughts of the person might look like. It is possible by perceiving a situation from another person’s perspective, thereby replicating another’s mental states. Affective empathy adds an emotional component, it means a person is able to feel others’ feelings, to imagine how another person might feel in a certain situation, how the inner emotional world of the person might look like, and how to respond with an appropriate emotion.

Maybe this empathy approach is a way to understand human cruelty. According to Baron-Cohen, autistic people struggle to understand other people’s thinking and find others confusing, but rarely hurt them. On the contrary, psychopaths and people with antisocial personality disorders understand and manipulate others, but often hurt them. These people may never experience true empathy, and the subjective experience of others will remain partly a mystery for them – either because they can not understand others, or because they do not want to. The rest of us can continue to enjoy good books and movies – for instance the ones from Pixar.

Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty
Simon Baron-Cohen
Penguin Books Limited, 2011

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