May 08, 2011
Simon Baron-Cohen Wants To Treat Empathy Deficiency

Narcissists, each of you may believe you are the greatest being on the face of the planet and a gift to the rest of us that we fail to appreciate. But Cambridge University psychology and psychiatry professor Simon Baron-Cohen wants to help you develop more empathy.

Psychopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder sit at the bottom end of the scale -- these people have "zero degrees of empathy."

But rather than labeling them as evil, Baron-Cohen says they should be seen as sick, or "disabled," and we should seek to understand why they have such an empathy deficiency and help them replace it.

So naturally I'm picturing some narcissists thinking that Baron-Cohen needs to learn how to love and worship and serve them.

I know I have some psychopathic readers who are aware they are fortunate not to be burdened by the mind-clouding weakness of empathy. What do you think of Baron-Cohen's views? Does he fail to appreciate the advantages of a psychopathic CEO who will fire inefficient people and allow the firm to flourish? Does he not realize that psychopaths can serve useful purposes?

Also, hey high functioning autistics: He researches you too as directory of the Cambridge Autism Research Center. Does he have views at odds with those autistics who do not think they are defective?

Baron-Cohen has a new book about to come out about brain research on empathy entitled (at least in America) The Science of Evil. I haven't read it but it sounds interesting.

My take: while a lack of empathy combined with some other traits can cause humans to harm and kill others it would be a mistake to believe that we should make everyone equally empathetic and much more empathetic. Too often empathy causes people to enable others to be lazy, destructive, and irresponsible. The tendency to experience very strong emotional desires, of any form, clouds the mind and blocks development of needed understanding.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 May 08 11:38 AM  Brain Society

You are going to get a lot of Anons when you ask questions like this. said at May 9, 2011 12:05 AM:

I don't think that empathy is a mind clouding weakness. Developing some degree of empathy can allow one to even more brutally exploit others. This is a something to be aware of when attempting to teach empathy to prisoners.

James Bowery said at May 9, 2011 12:44 AM:

One day I hope we'll be
In perfect harmony
A planet with one mind
And the world will be as one. Well, at least civilization will be as one big multicellular blob absorbing everything without the end that is programmed into sexual beings.

As W.D. Wilson pointed out in "Innate Social Aptitudes of Man":

"there is a law, and we can see why, and that sadly we also see the protean nature of this Dilemma, which, when suppressed at one level, gathers its strength at another."

bbartlog said at May 9, 2011 5:28 AM:

Increasing empathy should work fine if you can get universal compliance. Otherwise yeah, you're just going to end up setting up some set of people for exploitation (sorta like the way Europeans get exploited by Gypsies these days I guess... side note my 89 yr old grandma had some 14K gold jewelry stolen from her by a gypsy in Hamburg just yesterday). You'd end up with more liberal policies (welfare and the like). And since you can't get universal compliance it seems like a bad idea. Though if it were possible to do some such procedure on someone who didn't want it, it would be useful to be able to sentence prisoners to such an increase.
As I recall, college student studies show that empathy has decreased quite dramatically over the past twenty years (and maybe over a longer time period, too). Any theories as to why? There is changing racial composition, but it could also be that media is the culprit. It's hard to imagine a movie like (say) 'Saw III' being popular in the 1970s (let alone the 1960s).

Mark Plus said at May 9, 2011 7:38 AM:

I wonder if Baron-Cohen has looked into progressives' lack of empathy for law-abiding, productive, successful people who want the government to leave them alone.

Faruq said at May 9, 2011 8:02 AM:

I keep on posting info about the website 'the hedonistic imperative' on futurepundit, but nobody ever comes back with any commnets on whether it's manifesto is feasbily (technologically or sociologically). Why not?

Lono said at May 9, 2011 9:57 AM:


Agreed - you would need full universal compliance - and that would likely require the use of force at some level - unless, perhaps, less so if we are talking about smaller voluntary planned communities.


I actually sent and email to Prof. Baron-Cohen shortly after I read this article a few days ago informing him that I regularly score high marks for Narcissism AND Empathy on personality tests (and have all my life - including on those tests administered properly by licensed psychologists)

I pre-emptively agreed to an interview and/or to take tests to follow up on this phenomena if he was interested - so far he has not responded.

I do have OCD - and there are some psychologists who believe there is a form of OCD that leads to Narcissism in the subject regardless of the subjectís empathetic potential - but I would imagine it is an unusual phenotype as I have never met anyone else - online or offline - with a similar disposition as myself - certainly not to the same degree anyways.

I hope he does follow up with me - in the interest of furthering science and his research - which I think deserves further inspection - even if I do not fully agree with all of the conclusions Prof. Baron-Cohen draws from the current data.

As for your concern that programs to universally empathy has little social value in the long run - I would disagree somewhat.

I think for our civilization to move forward in a rational way we should - in fact - seriously consider creating a permanent political class which consists solely of those who do have above average levels of both empathy and IQ. I think it would be a great way to short circuit the natural tendency of world Govt.'s to become largely unaccountable oligarchies over the long run.

Mthson said at May 9, 2011 10:00 AM:

Faruq, thanks for posting references to the hedonistic imperative. I've seen it periodically through the years; maybe it's because of your links. It does seem an inevitable end point, in one form or another.

f1b0nacc1 said at May 9, 2011 10:33 AM:

I am reminded of a quote from the great Tom Lehrer..."I know that there are people out there who cannot love their fellow man, and I HATE people like that!"

As a side point, I wonder if he is any relation to Sasha Baron-Cohen?

LarryO said at May 9, 2011 11:37 AM:

He is the Ali G's creators Uncle. Got to love those Cohenen genes.
"Baron-Cohen is the son of Judith and Vivian Baron-Cohen. He is married to Bridget Lindley[12] and together they have three children, including independent film maker Sam Baron and songwriter Kate Baron.[13] His brothers are film director Ash Baron Cohen and Dan Baron Cohen (International Drama and Education Association). His sisters include acupuncturist Aliza Baron Cohen. His cousins include computer scientist Amnon Baron Cohen, composer and musician Erran Baron Cohen, comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen,[14] composer Lewis Furey, film producer Daniel Louis, playwright Richard Greenblatt, University of Washington chemistry professor Seymour Rabinovitch, University of Montana Japanese professor Judith Rabinovitch, and film-director Mark Robson."

not anon or anonymous said at May 9, 2011 11:56 AM:

bbartlog, I hope the perpetrator is caught and punished, but IMHO, people who visibly carry $ 14,000 in gold on their person are just asking for trouble. Perhaps I should be more empathetic.

On a related note, I'd like to see more proof for the assertion that empathy enables folks to be lazy and irresponsible.

Faruq said at May 9, 2011 1:32 PM:

A lot of people say that the points outlined in the Hedonsitic imperative website are moonshine. But then if 150 years ago you'd told someone that there would be 1 million people in the sky at any one time,flying in giant jets,watching movies,eating food,and a small number of them even joining the mile high club(!),then virtually nobody would have believed you. But in 2011 we not only have such jets,but even space tourism starting with folks like Elon Musk,so possibly the objectives in the Hedonsitic imperative might pan out. But I get a little angry that out of all the Billionaires I emailed last year to ask for funding for the Hedonisitc imperative, not a single one responded. Guess some people like living in misery !(joking).

Randall Parker said at May 9, 2011 8:10 PM:


Most people are too lazy most of the time to do a search when you do not provide a link they can click on. Heck just putting the URL in text is too much trouble. So for those people I offer the front page of The Hedonistic Imperative:

The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.

The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture - a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health. It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.

Two hundred years ago, powerful synthetic pain-killers and surgical anesthetics were unknown. The notion that physical pain could be banished from most people's lives would have seemed absurd. Today most of us in the technically advanced nations take its routine absence for granted. The prospect that what we describe as psychological pain, too, could ever be banished is equally counter-intuitive. The feasibility of its abolition turns its deliberate retention into an issue of social policy and ethical choice.

As for their project:

- Pain is useful when it pushes people away from harmful and dangerous choices. Psychological pain has utility too in many cases. The tricky part is to know when to block pain. Obviously, our pain killers suck too.

- Blissful people: They seem like easy marks for non-blissful people. See my other post right before this one: Common Drugs Reduce Feelings Of Unfairness? for an exploration of the problem.

Sycamore said at May 9, 2011 11:05 PM:

> I think for our civilization to move forward in a rational way we should - in fact - seriously consider creating a permanent political class which consists solely of those who do have above average levels of both empathy and IQ

You must be in the throes of a full-on psychotic break. Just kidding, but really in many ways Western nations are suffering severely from excessive empathy. Even the neocons overflow with it, domestically.

Russ said at May 10, 2011 6:49 AM:

I'm not sure that the Lotus Eaters would really have anything to offer to the non-blissful people anyway.

Lou Pagnucco said at May 10, 2011 8:17 AM:


Very interesting website and proposal.

I have engaged people in conversations on the topic at local pubs and coffee shops.
Perhaps, as a legacy of Puritanism and Fundamentalism, many seem compelled to interfere with others' pursuits of happiness and pleasure - and in the last few decades, laws have become more restrictive and punishment more draconian.
Many of the same people, though, seem to actually derive a righteous sense of pleasure by inflicting pain on imagined enemies and victimless "criminals."

Lono said at May 10, 2011 8:43 AM:


My proposal for creating a political class is simply in response to mankind's never ending quest for global governance.

If we accepted the idea of a specifically tailored political class - one that receives job satisfaction by solving logistical and political problems - then global governance could bring about a near-utopia, where efficient resource distribution would be emphasized.

If we continue down the logical path that our current tribal hierarchies will produce - we will end up in an unaccountable Oligarchy where basic resources will be tightly regulated and controlled so as to maintain an artificial political dominance over the world's citizenry.

Given these two foreseeable choices - I would prefer the lesser of two "evils" - rather than the endless cycles of oppression and revolution that will likely occur over time in the later system.


Prof. Baron-Cohen has unceremoniously turned down my offer to both educate and enlighten him in his field of study - shocking I know.

Yet another reason why I left academia - as very few researchers/scientists there want to really know the truth of things but rather only that which comes from their own ideation.

(The Fool!)

Baron-Cohen said at May 10, 2011 3:51 PM:

Lono, I would expect a narcissist to think he is a special case to be studied and entitled to engage with a busy, prestigious researcher! I'm sure Baron-Cohen has had quite a few laughs about all the narcissists who try to get in touch with him for their special snowflake qualities to be uncovered.

PacRim Jim said at May 10, 2011 4:49 PM:

Like atoms in a perfect crystal,
Each one of us emplaced,
Without the slightest imperfection,
With life by theory replaced.

Mthson said at May 10, 2011 8:30 PM:

Re: Baron-Cohen,

Ha. On the other hand, though, we'd rather be too ambitious than too complacent.

Lono said at May 11, 2011 8:33 AM:


Agreed - there is a reason there is a positive correlation between narcissism and leadership.

This is only the second time in my life I have provided unsolicited advice to a world renowned researcher - and it is disappointing that Prof. Baron-Cohen was not interested in further analyzing a possible outlier to his current data set. (nor in trying to characterize what such outliers may represent)

The other researcher I contacted years ago, Stanton Friedman, at least showed some reasonable professional interest in the information I provided him to help further his investigations.

(of course he is not entrenched in the academic world which may explain his more open minded and dedicated approach to analyzing the hard science)

Randall Parker said at May 11, 2011 7:17 PM:


By contrast, I am quite aware of the huge variation in quality and talent between narcissists. I appreciate that a very talented narcissist, so in love with himself, would take the time to develop profound understanding just so he could love himself all that much more. Or a great narcissist might compose a great piece of music so he can love to hear thru the music what a great composer he or or so that others will learn what he already knows: He's great.

The truth about things: That's what I want. I really want a time machine so I can travel far enough into the future to know the truth about many of today's mysteries. Most notably, how to rejuvenate the body? But stuff about the mind too. Plus, where are all the space aliens? Why aren't they here already?

Lono said at May 11, 2011 9:37 PM:


Indeed - I actually know very few confirmed narcissists in the meat space, but a surprisingly large number of sociopaths, who while superficially sharing certain traits with narcissists, tend to have a much more destructive effect on their local environments.

I too seek the same answers as you - as I am sure many readers here do - but I also find Professor Baron-Choen's analysis of narcissism to be a little shallow - and perhaps willfully ignorant.

Looking closer into the subject - it seems clear to me now that I have what is apparently commonly characterized as atypical fanatic narcissism - but just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me.


I currently find across the net that the majority of researchers seem to believe narcissism by definition excludes the presence of significant empathic understanding in a subject, something I find to be in contrast to my personal experience.

Edwin Rutsch said at May 12, 2011 11:46 AM:

May I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews, †videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

Engineer-Poet said at May 13, 2011 7:09 AM:
If we accepted the idea of a specifically tailored political class - one that receives job satisfaction by solving logistical and political problems - then global governance could bring about a near-utopia, where efficient resource distribution would be emphasized.
The Supreme Soviet and nomenklatura are in the dustbin of history for good reason.
Lono said at May 13, 2011 9:39 AM:


While I do not agree that Communisism can work in any idealized form larger than say a small farm collective - I fail to see how a specifically designed/screened political class of alphas would have any relation to the Soviet Politburo which was created along political lines rather than along functional lines.

We either end up in an Oligarchy - like all Capitalistic, Communist, and Feudal societies eventually degrade into - or we can preemptively create a scientifically valid and logically designed fully transparent socialist World Government.

I have no illusions mankind will do the right thing at first - but it is technically feasible.

Engineer-Poet said at May 15, 2011 11:03 AM:

I'm not sure you can have the level of selflessness and empathy you're thinking of and still have a class fit to be leaders.

You've also got the ethics problem of engineering a public-servant class.  These people you'd be depending upon to get the tough questions right would effectively be bred to be slaves of a sort.  Even if they'd be happy in the role, I'm not sure it's acceptable to create them.

Woozle said at May 16, 2011 4:32 PM:

My argument has always been that hypo-empaths should be handled differently from others: kept away from jobs where their lack of empathy could cause harm to others (or at least given more careful oversight in such jobs), and given preference for jobs where a sense of empathy would be a liability.

If treatment is developed, it should be an option. (I suspect that measured amounts of empathy are actually beneficial to the individual in most cases; are there any studies on this question? If so, a rational hypo-empath might wish for more empathy in order to make empathic responses more innately rewarding instead of a necessary calculation.)

Mark Plus's argument is such an obvious strawman that I am assuming it was intended as a troll.

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