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Zero Degrees of Empathy [Paperback]

Simon Baron-Cohen
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
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Book Description

7 Jun 2012

In Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness Simon Baron-Cohen takes fascinating and challenging new look at what exactly makes our behaviour uniquely human.

How can we ever explain human cruelty?

We have always struggled to understand why some people behave in the most evil way imaginable, while others are completely self-sacrificing. Is it possible that - rather than thinking in terms of 'good' and 'evil' - all of us instead lie somewhere on the empathy spectrum, and our position on that spectrum can be affected by both genes and our environments?

Why do some people treat others as objects? Why is empathy our most precious resource? And does a lack of it always mean a negative outcome?

From the Nazi concentration camps of World War Two to the playgrounds of today, Simon Baron-Cohen examines empathy, cruelty and understanding in a groundbreaking study of what it means to be human.

'Fascinating ... dazzling ... a full-scale assault on what we think it is to be human'
  Sunday Telegraph

'Highly readable ... this is a valuable book'
  Charlotte Moore, Spectator

'Important ... humane and immensely sympathetic'
  Richard Holloway, Literary Review

Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor at Cambridge University in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. He is also the Director of the Autism Research Centre there. He has carried out research into social neuroscience over a 20 year career. His popular science book entitled The Essential Difference has been translated in over a dozen languages, and has been widely reviewed.

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Zero Degrees of Empathy + The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the Extreme Male Brain + Autism and Asperger Syndrome (The Facts)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin (7 Jun 2012)
  • Language: Unknown
  • ISBN-10: 0141017961
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141017969
  • Product Dimensions: 19.4 x 12.8 x 1.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 37,105 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Bringing cruelty triumphantly into the realm of science, this pioneering journey into human nature at last delivers us from 'evil'. (Dr. Helena Cronin, Co-Director, Centre For Philosophy Of Natural And Social Science, Lse )

A compelling and provocative account of empathy as our most precious social resource. Lack of empathy lurks in the darkest corners of human history and Simon Baron Cohen does not shrink from looking at them under the fierce light of science. (Uta Frith, Emeritus Professor Of Cognitive Development, Ucl )

Simon Baron-Cohen combines his creative talent with evidence and reason to make the case that evil is essentially a failure of empathy. It is an understanding that can enlighten an old debate and hold out the promise of new remedies. (Matt Ridley, Author Of The Illusionist )

A book that gets to the heart of man's inhumanity to man... Baron-Cohen has made a major contribution to our understanding of autism (Dorothy Rowe Guardian )

Fascinating... bold (Ian Critchley Sunday Times )

Ground-breaking and important...This humane and immensely sympathetic book calls us to the task of reinterpreting aberrant human behaviour so that we might find ways of changing it for the better...The not to diminish the concept of human evil, but to demystify it (Richard Holloway Literary Review )

Fascinating and disturbing (Alasdair Palmer Sunday Telegraph )

Isn't it lucky...that the very people who can't put themselves into other people's shoes, have a champion [in Simon Baron-Cohen] who, by dint of his curiosity, has turned it into an art form? (Lee Randall Scotsman )

Attractively humane...fascinating information about the relation between degrees of empathy and the state of our brains. (Terry Eagleton Financial Times )

Easy to read and packed with anecdotes. The author conveys brain research with verve. (Kathleen Taylor Science Focus )

Zero Degrees of Empathy is short, clear, and highly readable. Baron-Cohen guides you through his complex material as of you were a student attending a course of lectures. There's no excuse for not understanding anything he says... he is an outstandingly effective communicator of serious science. His passionate optimism, his belief that scientific study can deepen our humanity, lies at the heart of his theorising (Charlotte Moore The Spectator )

In a book that is partly a popular science treatise and partly a self-help manual... he interweaves life stories and clinical evidence in an engaging and informative manner... He is grappling with one of the most important questions for our times (Joanna Bourke Times Higher Education )

In his 2007 book Musicophilia, psychiatrist Oliver Sacks warned that although neuroscience offers exciting insights, 'there is always a certain danger that the simple art of observation may be lost, that clinical description may become perfunctory, and the richness of the human context ignored'. Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, UK, rises to the challenge in his latest book by combining basic science and clinical observation in an attempt to explain human cruelty... We should take Baron-Cohen's accessible book as an invitation to leave the comforts of smaller, more tractable problems in a genuine attempt to address larger social issues (Stephanie Preston Nature ) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor at Cambridge University in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. He is also the Director of the Autism Research Centre there. He has carried out research into social neuroscience over a 20 year career. His popular science book entitled The Essential Difference (Penguin 2003) has been translated in over a dozen languages, and has been widely reviewed.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lurid neuroscience for beginners... 21 Sep 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A challenging and original book, it is sometimes difficult to avoid criticising the logic, but there is no doubting the potency of the question. Understanding how people can be capable of suspending their feelings for others in order to commit acts of horror on them is the coalescing idea, and Baron-Cohen does much to identify the workaday nature of psychopathy that occasionally flares up into full scale violence. He counterposes this with the notion that the 'internal pot of gold' deposited by stable and responsible parenting as the best defence against the dark side of human nature. If I have a dissatisfaction with the argument, it is the tendency to look for pathology ahead of temporality. It seems clear from his examples that people in certain circumstances suspend their empathy in order to carry out an atrocity to which their conscience otherwise would object (see Their Darkest Hour: People Tested to the Extreme in WWII for some more horrific examplars). That, and in some of the situations he cites(the unspeakableness of the child soldier attack, for instance), it might well be the fullest volume of empathy that fires the imagination to such ghastliness, rather than the detachment of fellow feeling that Baron-Cohen appears to blame. They knew what would hurt, and hurt the worst.

Regardless, an excellent book on neuropsychology for the non-scientist, and a handy guide at the back for identifying those workplace psychopaths that haunt one's daily life.
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56 of 62 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars chockful of interest - highly recommended 19 April 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This short book - less than 130 pages of text (not counting footnotes) - proposes that evil is really the absence of empathy (well, not quite, there is also a "positive" version of the absence of empathy), and argues the case through philosophy (empathy it's possible to study empirically, evil it's not), brain science (there's a complex network of 10 areas involved in empathy and its absence), psychiatry and developmental pscyhology (some "negative" forms of zero empathy, eg borderline personality, relate to shortcomings in nurture) and the perspective of evolution (we have a bell-curve distribution of emphathy and of the capacity to systematise, so maybe being in the middle of the curves is best for survival?)

Baron-Cohen draws extensively on the work of others as well as his own research into the autistic spectrum and empathy, but brings it all together into a new paradigm. I imagine most readers of the book will be thoroughly engrossed by this enterprise whether or not they find it persuasive.

While it's good that the book is short and covers so many fiels of enquiry, it inevitably leaves many quesitons unasked and unanswered. Looking at these from a few perspectives: (a) philosophical - Baron-Cohen gives a really interesting perspective on the thesis that morality has to do with rationality (the systematising trait) and that it has to do with the emotions (the empathising trait): are we dealing with one thing here or two? And is the absence of morality ("evil, or zero empathy") the absence of one thing or two?; (b) psychiatry/developmental psychology - it's interesting that brain science shows that empathy circuits are not working right in borderline personality, psychopathy and narcissism. What about eg schizophrenia?
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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
By Sphex
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Whatever Jesus may or may not have said about the importance of loving one another, Christians have nevertheless often resorted to violence down the ages. Martin Luther, for example, although a follower of a man who was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died a Jew, wrote a pamphlet entitled "Against the Jews" in which he called on his fellow Christians to burn synagogues and destroy Jewish homes. Four hundred years later, the young Adolf Hitler quoted Luther "to give his own Nazi racist views some respectability". The two Nazi scientists, pictured performing a cold water immersion experiment on an inmate of Dachau Concentration Camp, share at least one character trait with Luther: an absence of empathy. All three were educated and intelligent individuals who were nonetheless capable of disregarding the thoughts and feelings of other human beings, of treating them as objects, with tragic consequences. How could they do this?

This one image, the first illustration in this engaging and important book, stands for the millions of instances of human cruelty that occurred in that war alone, to say nothing of what can be found in any newspaper on any day of the week. Simon Baron-Cohen's main goal is to understand human cruelty and to replace the unscientific term "evil" with the scientific term "empathy". He wants to move "the debate out of the realm of religion and into the realm of science", not because he is anti-religion (indeed, he regards Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a candidate for someone with super-empathy) but because "religion has been singularly anti-enquiry on the topic of the causes of evil".
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unconvincing and thinly evidenced 10 Jan 2013
I very much wanted to like this book, particularly as it addresses such a central question of human existence - how, can we as a species, inflict such unspeakable cruelty apon each other? Unfortunately I found it unconvincing and its arguments thin. It almost entirely lacks an historical or structural perspective, and it relies heavily on the pseudo science of the DSM 4. It also makes some startling generalisations. I worked in the field of addiction for many years, and I dont recognise my patient group from the fifty percent of 'those attending clinics for alcoholism' he identifies as having Borderline Personality Disorder. Perhaps the author would benefit from spending some time with people in recovery, and those who have experienced trauma and through hard work and determination have experienced the phenomenon of post traumatic growth, rather than having been defined by early or later trauma and dependence. I applaud his attempt to try and deal with a difficult subject, and to use functional and objective (ish) methods such as MRI, but to then relate those findings back to poorly designed labels that are essentially clusters of symptoms and no more does not take us any further forward. And to say evil is the equivalent of empathy erosion is just a semantic evasion. Is evil just the pathology of the individual? If so, how do we make sense of some of the incidents he mentions, of the widespread brutality and instrumental violence used by states and armies to subdue whole populations? Can we really explain the Holocaust or the Killing Fields as an amalgamation of empathy erosion? No.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars The end of evil...
Beautifully written, very clear exposition of the subject with a rational explanation of human 'evil. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Schopenhauer’s ghost
5.0 out of 5 stars This should be compulsory reading in schools
Easy to read, as are all his books. Science writing at it's best. It sheds light into the dark corners of our humanity, dispelling the notion of evil and giving hope for the... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Ms K E McKenzie
5.0 out of 5 stars on time, good condition.
I brought this book as a gift for my brother's birthday. I struggled not to read it before I gave it to him as it looks so interesting. Read more
Published 5 months ago by abigail
4.0 out of 5 stars Great easy read
Great recommendation - very easy to read. A truly fascinating book. Would highly recommend this book to any one ......
Published 6 months ago by M. Dwek
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for everyone!
This book is written by a world renowned expert on Asperger`s Syndrome and a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Cambridge University. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Liza Poole
5.0 out of 5 stars Empathy
I Found This Book Very Interesting. Also It Helped Me To Understand Someone In My Life. Who I Am Going To Pass The Book Onto For Them To Read.
Published 10 months ago by deborah watson
5.0 out of 5 stars an easy read for a non-scientist
Clear and easy to read; carefully considered. I had the book once after a talk by Baron-Cohen and lost it. This was a re-purchase as the book is excellent for reference.
Published 11 months ago by Monika Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring read.
This book exudes empathy in its style and language that makes it so accessible to even the likes of me! I could not put this down and have learned so much from the experience. Read more
Published 14 months ago by Koo
5.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting book
This is not a book for the faint hearted. However if you can get past the first chapter or two which dwells a bit on the holocaust then you will be rewarded with better... Read more
Published 14 months ago by J
4.0 out of 5 stars Awesome
I loved this book, the content was refreshing and the writing style was engaging. Well worth a read if you are interested in understanding the mind of a psychopath (amongst others)
Published 14 months ago by hodgey
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