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Neuroscience: Evil as “empathy deficit disorder”

That’s the latest, as Kate Kelland (May 5, 2011) reports, in “Scientist seeks to banish evil, boost empathy”:

Baron-Cohen, who is also director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, has just written a book in which he calls for a kind of rebranding of evil to offer a more scientific explanation for why people kill and torture, or have such great difficulty understanding the feelings of others.His proposal is that evil be understood as a lack of empathy — a condition he argues can be measured and monitored and is susceptible to education and treatment.

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If we all used our ability to empathise more, and recognised its value, he says, conflicts such as the decades of tit-for-tat violence between Palestinians and Israelis could be resolved.

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Citing decades of scientific research, he says there are at least 10 regions of the brain which make up what he calls the “empathy circuit”. When people hurt others, either systematically or fleetingly, parts of that circuit are malfunctioning.

He thinks that society should consider “psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder” sick or disabled, and help them replace their defective empathy circuits rather than just locking up those who commit crimes, as defined by the statutes.

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9 Responses to Neuroscience: Evil as “empathy deficit disorder”

  1. He thinks that society should consider “psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder” sick or disabled, and help them replace their defective empathy circuits rather than just locking up those who commit crimes, as defined by the statutes.

    And what should we do with someone who purposefully disables their “defective empathy circuits” to do something horrible that will benefit themselves, estimating that the penalty will just be their empathy circuits being “fixed”?

  2. 2
    CannuckianYankee

    Having worked in the field of mental health, and having specifically worked with the treatment of persons with borderline personality disorder as well as with persons with anti-social personality disorder for 20 years, I would say that “empathy,” whatever he means by that is misplaced.

    In fact, in the treatment milieu, the “skill of empathy” is a skill within the framework of working with people with specific symptoms. However, the skill does not appear to work with people who have chosen characteriological patterns; in fact it often leads to an undesired effect. The clinician becomes emotionally drawn into the behavioral patterns and is not able to effectively thwart them.

    What does work is setting firm boundaries and limits on their chosen behavior; which would work in a clinical setting as well as it would work in a a corrections setting.

    I.e. you don’t allow them to do what they’ve chosen to do, and you don’t allow their chosen behavior to be beneficial to them. Empathy certainly works when they’ve chosen to reverse the pattern of their behavior, but it actually contributes to the behavior patterns when you allow them to continue.

  3. 3
    CannuckianYankee

    If their “empathy circuits” are defective it’s because of the chosen behavior, not because there’s something chemically hampering them. Medication works with people who suffer from all kinds of mental problems, such as anxiety, depression, delusions, paranoia, hallucinations, etc.. In the clinical setting, persons with BPDO or ASPDO may be prescribed these medications for those underlying symptoms, but they don’t work on the chosen behavior patterns; which is why in clinical settings medications are only a part of the overall treatment milieu. In such settings, a large part of the therapy treatment is helping the patient to make better behavioral choices, not in fixing their “empathy circuits.”

  4. 4
    CannuckianYankee

    It would seem to me that if one wants to understand the practical approach to these behaviors, one would have to go to what is currently being done in mental health facilities, which also has practical application in other areas of dealing with disruptive behavior, such as in foreign policy:

    Perhaps one of the most effective tools in helping clinicians work with specific behavioral patterns is what is known throughout the mental health treatment setting as the “Common Knowledge Model,” which in summary is thus:

    There are two patterns of common operant behavior (in a clinical setting): manipulation and intimidation.

    BF skinner http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_behavior

    There are two patterns of respondent behavior: fear and frustration.

    To effectively deal with these differing behaviors in a clinical setting (given that aggressive behaviors are associated with one of the four behavior patterns mentioned), there are certain responses that work and certain responses, which increase the behavior.

    Essentially with operant behavior (which is the behavior most associated with personality or characteriological disorders), the most effective response is to reduce the reinforcers, which condition the behavior. I.e., if a person is attempting to manipulate a benefit that he/she is not entitled to, the common and most effective response to such manipulation is first to recognize it as an attempt to manipulate, and then to detach oneself from the manipulation, not allowing pleads for sympathy to be effective.

    Sounds harsh, but it’s a reality they need to face, and a skilled clinician can do so in an empathetic manner.

    I wont get into the specifics, but I think this model works not only in a clinical setting, but in our every day lives, and in world politics as well, precisely because there IS evil in the world, and we can recognize behavior patterns as such and respond in ways, which are effective.

    Since the main article seems to suggest that an approach that lightens the “empathy circuit” malfunction would work even in world politics, let’s take North Korea as an example. Their leaders fit within the Common Knowledge Model as intimidators. The most effective response to an intimidator is to let them know that we are prepared to do whatever it takes to assure the consequences of the threatened behavior in order to keep people safe. Helping the North Korean government to be empathetic is not going to help. Many have tried that approach to no avail. What seems to be keeping us safe is the presence of an international force on their border in preparation for anything they might threaten to do.

    It’s both a practical and an effective approach. We don’t really have the ability to do much more than that (on that level), since it’s really an internal matter for the people of Korea to work out in time. We should be focused on helping them to do just that, as we have done with people under other despotic regimes in the past.

    If we were to take an approach of attempting to appeal to the empathy of the North Korean government – in a diplomatic way, the only outcome it seems to me would be to reinforce their evil behavior; simply because they will sense that we’re really on their side. As such, they may very well simply switch from intimidating us to manipulating our sympathies, and become even more dangerous than they currently are. If we continue with the current approach while adding an appeal to their “empathetic circuits,” it may also send a mixed message. Better to be clear about our intentions than to send mixed signals.

    Notice that President Obama as yet has not effectively attempted to engage in the approach he implied during his campaign, which would have been to start diplomatic talks with such regimes.

    http://abcnews.go.com/Internat.....d=12227372

    I’m not well read in political science, but assuring consequences of behavior seems to be the prevailing approach when things get heated up – at least in American foreign policy – no matter from which political party. We’ve certainly seen this approach also with Libya.

    I think this also transfers back down to the clinical level, and I’ve seen the consequences of it with personel who go outside the bounds of the clinical milieu and want to “rescue” people from the consequences of their behavior on their own authority. They end up getting themselves into more hot water than they intended – even if they had good intentions.

    Those are the most dangerous people in the clinical setting and administrators generally know (or should know) that those people require either more training or disciplinary action – which is not surprising given that there IS evil in the world, and quite often evil is predicated on good intentions.

    I’ve tried to find references online for the Common Knowledge Model, but have been unsuccessful. It is most often referred to in copyrighted training material – such as MAB (C) (Management of Assaultive Behavior) or Pro-ACT (C) (Professional Assault Crisis Training), formerly PART. I was a certified trainer in Pro-ACT for 3 years. Their materials are given only to the facilities that contract with them for their training.

    http://www.parttraining.com/

    It’s not surprising that the author is heralding this approach given his expertise in working with persons with autism. Clearly such an approach might work in that setting, but it doesn’t necessarily transfer to other settings when we’re dealing with entirely different behavioral patterns, with entirely different motives and operant conditions. Clearly some evil does entail a lack of empathy, but that can’t be the only operant condition for what we call evil.

  5. Is someone who is full of pride lacking empathy?

  6. #4 CannuckianYankee

    Clearly some evil does entail a lack of empathy, but that can’t be the only operant condition for what we call evil.

    Of course, it involves other malfunctioning brain circuitry, like the humility circuits and patience circuits. Once we figure out how random mutations in our genomes produced these circuits, we’ll be able to re-wire every criminal that comes into our grasp

  7. 7
    CannuckianYankee

    uoflcard,

    Scary, ain’t it?

    I wasn’t suggesting that I agree that evil is wired in the brain. Clearly we make choices that have nothing to do with our brain chemicals. Mentally ill people clearly do have chemical imbalances, which contribute to delusional thinking and cause hallucinations. There are mental illness denialists, who don’t seem to understand this either.

  8. 8
    CannuckianYankee

    uoflcard,

    I’m very proud of my empathy for others. ;)

  9. I’m very proud of my empathy for others.

    Well, in that case, I feel sorry for you.

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