Saturday, April 2, 2011

Layer 458 . . . Empathy, Social Intelligence, Human Cruelty, and the World's Most Valuable Resource

The obvious reason the rich don't give a shit about the poor is they're greedy bastards who can never get their hands on enough moola to satisfy their grasping, materialistic, status-seeking, pleasure-seeking desires.

Another reason is their total lack of caring, empathy, social intelligence - call it what you will.

The science of empathy
Does it upset you when you see people arguing? Do you cry at the cinema? Empathy is one of our most powerful emotions yet society has all but ignored it. Autism expert Professor Simon Baron-Cohen reveals the science behind "the world's most valuable resource" – and how its lack is the root of human cruelty

This article was published in last week's Guardian magazine, and is a must-read for anyone who has any interest in human relationships - which ought to be everybody. If this doesn't appeal - then it means you're a sociopath or a psychopath.

It's interesting that the professor never uses the term "social intelligence", though he must be aware that Daniel Goleman, for one, has written whole books on this subject, and on emotional intelligence.

Bear in mind also that he's writing from the standpoint of a professional academic psychologist focusing on people with a deficit of empathy, people who have a serious lack of empathy for deep-seated personal reasons, and not just because their social intelligence hasn't been encouraged or allowed to develop by a school system that doesn't give a damn, on the whole, about consistently raising young people's levels of social intelligence. In fact, competitive education will always do the opposite - depress levels of social intelligence by setting people against one another through competition for grades and status.

As ever, I'll post here a few quotations from the article just to give a flavour, but I do urge readers to take time to read the entire piece.

How can humans treat other people as objects? How do humans come to switch off their natural feelings of sympathy for a fellow human being who is suffering?

As a scientist I want to understand the factors causing people to treat others as if they are mere objects. So let's substitute the term "evil" with the term "empathy erosion". Empathy erosion can arise because of corrosive emotions, such as bitter resentment, or desire for revenge, or blind hatred, or desire to protect.

The key idea is that we all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum. People said to be "evil" or cruel are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum. We can all be lined up along this spectrum of individual differences, based on how much empathy we have. At one end of this spectrum we find "zero degrees of empathy".

Zero degrees of empathy means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions. It leaves you feeling mystified by why relationships don't work out, and it creates a deep-seated self-centredness. Other people's thoughts and feelings are just off your radar. It leaves you doomed to do your own thing, in your own little bubble, not just oblivious of other people's feelings and thoughts but oblivious to the idea that there might even be other points of view. The consequence is that you believe 100% in the rightness of your own ideas and beliefs, and judge anyone who does not hold your beliefs as wrong, or stupid.

Zero degrees of empathy does not strike at random in the population. There are at least three well-defined routes to getting to this end-point: borderline, psychopathic, and borderline personality disorders. I group these as zero-negative because they have nothing positive to recommend them. They are unequivocally bad for the sufferer and for those around them. Of course these are not all the sub-types that exist. Indeed, alcohol, fatigue and depression are just a few examples of states that can temporarily reduce one's empathy, and schizophrenia is another example of a medical condition that can reduce one's empathy.

Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in the school curriculum 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 FW 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. And, for every day that empathy is not employed in such corners of the world, more lives are lost.

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. Until recently, neuroscientists hardly questioned what empathy is.

Empathy is like a universal solvent. 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 the neighbour. Unlike the arms industry that costs trillions of dollars to maintain, or the prison service and legal system that cost millions of dollars to keep oiled, empathy is free. And, unlike religion, empathy cannot, by definition, oppress anyone.

Zero Degrees of Empathy: a New Theory of Human Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen (Allen Lane, £20) is published on 7 April.

Simon Baron-Cohen is professor of psychology and psychiatry at Cambridge university


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