While nothing is easier than to denounce the evil-doer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him. - Dostoyevsky
"By leading the Americans in his audience at TEDxPSU step by step through the thought process, sociologist Sam Richards sets an extraordinary challenge: can they understand -- not approve of, but understand -- the motivations of an Iraqi insurgent? And by extension, can anyone truly understand and empathize with another?" Direct Link. (Hat tip, Sa Lim)
Empathy is “our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion,” writes Simon Baron-Cohen, cousin of actor Sasha Baron-Cohen, and author of "The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty."
Evil is "empathy erosion," he writes. "Empathy erosion can arise because of corrosive emotions, such as bitter resentment, or desire for revenge, or blind hatred, or a desire to protect."
He wants to know why humans turn other humans into objects. "How do humans come to switch off their natural feelings of sympathy for another human being who is suffering?" he asks. His argument is that "when you treat someone as an object, your empathy has been turned off.
"Treating other people as if they were just objects is one of the worst things you can do to another human being, to ignore their subjectivity, their thoughts and feelings.
"When people are solely focused on the pursuit of their own interests, they have all the potential to be unempathic," he writes.
Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, points out in a NYTIMES review of Baron-Cohen's book that one might lack empathy for temporary reasons — you can be enraged or drunk, for instance — but Baron-Cohen is most interested in lack of empathy as an enduring trait. He acknowledges that empathy is often eroded by situations people find ourselves in. A study by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford illustrated, for example, how normal students were transformed into brutal torturers simply by being given the part of prison guards. Zimbardo argued in his book, The Lucifer Effect, that his experiment explains the events in Abu Ghraib, as well as Nazi concentration camps, and the Japanese massacre of 350,000 Chinese civilians at Nan King in 1937.
Included in Baron-Cohen's book (and also online) is an Empathy Quotient survey, which can supposedly determine if someone lacks any empathy (sociopathic), tends toward autism or Asperger's Syndrome (low empathy), or scores high on empathy. Predictably, women score slightly higher on empathy than men. Take the quiz and see how you score. I scored 64, highly empathetic, not a bad trait for a writer or teacher but probably not a good trait for a CEO who may have to fire people. Three percent of CEOs have no empathy at all and are classified as sociopaths, according to the author.
- Amazon.com page for The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.