Information Age Education
   Issue Number 69
July, 2011   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

Some readers may be interested in the following recent IAE Blog posting:

Include Computational Thinking in Habits of Mind, available at

This IAE Newsletter is the second of a pair of articles that review an intriguing development—the use of neuroimaging technology to scientifically explore areas that had formerly been the purview of theology and philosophy. The first article focused on consciousness and especially the issue of a celestial afterlife, and this article focuses on the nature of evil and cruelty.

The Science Of Evil

Empathy is a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is a free and effective as a way to resolve any interpersonal problem that one could imagine—from marriage and family problems to national and international political disputes. (Adapted from Simon Baron-Cohen)

The genesis of evil, as various religions typically view it, seems beyond scientific investigation. Religions often ascribe it to malevolent spirits that enter into humans and direct their misbehavior. In The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Simon Baron-Cohen begs to disagree. He argues persuasively that cruel behavior related to the concept of evil is the result of specific brain system deficits and/or malfunctions that result from innate factors and perhaps also from poor childhood nurturing. He further argues that absence of empathy is a scientifically more accurate term than evil.

Baron-Cohen brings strong credentials and solid neuroimaging research to the task. He is widely recognized for his seminal work in exploring the underlying neurobiology of the autism spectrum (and diminished empathy is a characteristic of autism). I suspect that the book will be both widely admired and roundly denounced. In either case, it will certainly help to set the agenda for a 21st century discussion of how societies should appropriately respond to cruelty, given emerging scientific discoveries about brain development and cognitive processing. The excellent case studies that he inserts into the text provide a good sense of the complexity of the issues the book raises and discusses.

The Human Brain

Our brain’s principal task is to plan, regulate, and predict behavior and the movement of objects. In order to do this, it must developmentally master two key forms of knowledge about the natural world that Baron-Cohen calls systematizing and empathizing.

Systematizing involves the ability to recognize, analyze, and manipulate predictably changing patterns—in effect, to figure out how things work and how to make them work better. Understanding repetitive patterns allows us to predict the future, and also to manipulate variables in order to modify and improve a function.

Empathizing involves the ability to understand other humans, who are a very important sub-set of the organic and inorganic world. Empathy occurs when we suspend our normal single-minded focus and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention. It thus defines our remarkable ability to infer and appropriately respond to someone else’s feelings, thoughts, and intentions. This ability is commonly called Theory of Mind (

These two capabilities exist along a low-to-high continuum. Baron-Cohen has developed two online 60-question self-report tests: Systematizing Quotient (SQ) and Empathy Quotient (EQ).
SQ/EQ scores in a general population will fall within a normal distribution (a bell-shaped curve), with about 68% of the group within one standard deviation from the mean. Most of us function adequately in situations that require some empathy and/or pattern recognition and manipulation. Those who score at the very high end of either scale will tend to be exceptionally competent (even obsessed) with either regularity in the patterns they observe and seek (SQ), or with the feelings and needs of others (EQ). Those who score at the very low end of either scale exhibit incompetence in pattern recognition and manipulation (SQ) or in social skills such as empathy (EQ).

It’s probable that functioning within the moderate middle levels of the ranges is the most adaptive for our species. For example, being too other-centered (on the EQ scale) tends to diminish our personal ambition and attainment for fear of diminishing others. Being too self-centered allows us to successfully (and even ruthlessly) pursue our ambitions, and so perhaps to achieve power and wealth, but also to make many enemies in the process. Although balance is much better for most of us, the outliers can be both helpful and hurtful to human society.

Zero Degrees of Empathy: From Discovery to Cruelty

Baron-Cohen indicates that a circuit of (at least) ten highly interconnected cognitive and affective brain systems regulates empathy. The book discusses each in detail. Recent neuroimaging studies have identified many of the circuit deficits and malfunctions that cause behavioral aberrations. Such behavioral aberrations are not necessarily negative.

For example, people with Asperger’s syndrome score very high in systematizing (because of their intense focus on regularity) but they score low on empathy because they have difficulty with the unpredictability implicit in human emotion and behavior. They thus prefer to spend their time with whatever predictable systems interest them, and because of that they may make important discoveries in such highly patterned fields as mathematics, physics, and engineering. Although their social skills and interests are low, their behavior typically isn’t harmful because they’ve developed a logic-based moral code out of their strong concern for regularity. In effect, they follow the rules.

The focus of Baron-Cohen’s book however, is on the downside of empathy outliers—those who score at the bottom of the empathy scale and often engage in cruel behavior. Baron-Cohen calls these Zero Negatives, and three major types of personality disorders characterize this condition: Borderline Disorders, Psychopathic Disorders, and Narcissist Disorders. All three exhibit deficits and/or malfunctions in one or more of the ten systems in the empathy circuit. People with these disorders are unable to recognize and respond appropriately to the feelings and desires of others, and are thus often emotionally and/or physically abusive. Less than 5% of the general population is beset with one of these disorders, but these people cause much social turmoil and account for a substantial part of the prison population.
  • People with borderline disorders are characterized by self-destructive impulsivity, anger, and mood swings. Their verbal and emotional abuse is often very cruel. They view people they know as “all good” or “all bad” and can rapidly shift their assessment from one characterization to the other. They expect the “all bad” folks to apologize but often don’t explain what the person had supposedly done.

  • People with psychopathic disorders are similarly preoccupied with themselves, but they also exhibit a willingness to do whatever it takes to satisfy their desires – to charm, lie, cheat, assault, kill… They will often react violently to a minor real or imagined slight. They can also commit cold calculated forms of cruelty and seemingly delight in watching their victim suffer. They lack any sense of anxiety or guilt over their cruel behavior.
  • People with narcissist disorders often boastfully say and do things that offend others, but are less apt to engage in the aggressively cruel behavior that borderline and psychopaths exhibit.
All of us temporarily lose empathy on occasion due to fatigue, anger, frustration, alcohol, or other factors, but our empathy returns. The absence of empathy in the above personality disorders is a trait, a typically permanent condition.

Cultural Challenges

The discovery that these forms of personality disorder share a common neurobiological substrate enhances the search for effective interventions, but doesn’t immediately solve the problem. Genetics plays an important role in the development and maintenance of an effective empathy circuit, but environmental challenges trigger genetic expression. We can’t currently do much about the genetics, but we can affect a child’s developmental environment. Baron-Cohen views Attachment Theory as a good beginning, because of its sound explanation of the positive and negative effects of parental/family affection and rejection (
). He argues that what a nurturing community gives children as they develop empathy is like an internal pot of gold, something more precious than any material gifts.

Students with empathy problems create difficult school problems—such as bullying, defacing, and various self-centered acting out problems. Autism similarly has developed a higher profile in cultural consciousness, and so schools struggle with the issue of how best to provide a compassionate school environment for autistic students. The criminal justice system similarly struggles with the issue of incarcerating people who medical research now argues are basically ill. The issue of Free Will adds yet another layer of complexity.

Baron-Cohen doesn’t presume to provide a simple answer for these and other issues that are emerging out of this body of research, but he provides a very informed and informative platform where the discussion can begin—and it will probably continue for quite awhile.

Final Remarks

From time to time in these IAE Newsletters we note that human brains are a lot different from computer brains. Empathy is an important and complex aspect of a human brain. Some researchers in artificial intelligence are exploring what it might mean for a computer system—such as a robot—to have empathy. Right now, humans are far better at having empathy than are computers.


Baron-Cohen, S. (2011) The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books.

Book Review, The New York Times:

Book Reviews,

An interview with Simon Baron-Cohen:

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