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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lurid neuroscience for beginners...
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...
Published on 21 Sept. 2011 by Dr. G. SPORTON

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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unconvincing and thinly evidenced
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...
Published on 10 Jan. 2013 by SD


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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lurid neuroscience for beginners..., 21 Sept. 2011
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Dr. G. SPORTON "groggery1" (Birmingham UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty (Hardcover)
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
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This review is from: Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty (Hardcover)
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? Are brain-circuits just warped in some of these cases, rather than absent as with Asperger's and autism? (c) brain science - if this is what justifies putting together the "false developmental paths" that are narcissism and borderline personality with Asperger's, why not go with brain science when it tells us the empathy circuits of Buddhist monks work overtime? (Baron-Cohen says, "yes, but they're not empathetic in the usual sense of the term").

All that said: this is a really interesting book; and highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read., 21 July 2012
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This guy knows his stuff! Zero Degrees of Empathy is definitely a must-read.
Baron-Cohen delves deep into the reasons behind, and consequences of, people with so-called 'evil' minds, without classing them as such. Instead, he very maturely discusses how we are all somewhere on the empathy spectrum, and explains that some of us are unfortunately (and sometimes fortunately) placed on an extreme end of this spectrum. He gently explains the theory of empathy erosion, and how, despite the state commonly being thought of as 'cruel' and unable to do any good, they can actually often do a whole lot of good.

I'd recommend this book to anyone, as no matter where your thoughts are on 'good' and 'evil', this will certainly get you thinking differently, and you'll definitely learn something new.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good read, 14 July 2012
I like that this book properly addresses empathy, as opposed to painting those with 'zero degrees of empathy' as mindless, violent criminally-inclined monsters.

It's short, easy to read and interesting.

A lot of books and articles about psychopathy seem to focus on 'conscience'. This irritates me, primarily because it is such a vague term. Baron-Cohen identifies empathy as a key aspect of a number of psychological conditions, including psychopathy/antisocial personality disorder, conduct disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, asperger's syndrome and autism. Up until now, I didn't properly understand the concept of 'having a conscience'. Now I do - it's all about empathy. A very interesting and informative read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A thought provoking eye-opener, 17 Dec. 2012
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This is a fascinating book. Recommended to me by a friend who is a child psychologist I wondered whether it might be a bit too specialist for me but it is written really clearly and is accessible by the interested amateur. I have hardly stopped thinking about 'zero degrees empathy' as an explanation for some people's ability to treat other people as objects and it is amazing how often it has been a useful reference point when reading other books or even watching the news. It has had quite a profound effect on my behaviour and in my dealings with my family and friends as well as my colleagues. It certainly makes me think about the way I treat other humans.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Empathy deficit rather than evil - a valuable concept, despite some sneering or anguished reviews!, 24 July 2012
In my probably crude and clumsy summary: he seeks to demonstrate that low or non-existent empathy provides pathways that can (it doesn't always) lead people to carry out acts we call "evil." Some of the reviews seem to me way off the mark - he does not say that all autistic people have zero empathy, because he distinguishes between cognitive and affective empathy, and also between degrees of autism, e.g Aspergers - but this is a tense area of debate, so moving right on:

It is possible, he says, to show that certain common circuits in the brain are fired when we are being empathic. (That's the neuroscience - it's easy to follow in general though a bit demanding for your present reviewer in the detail.) People with zero degrees of empathy don't fire up these circuits when shown material that does create responses in the circuits, in people whose empathy capabilities are stronger.

He also discusses the degree to which zero empathy can be caused by the environment (especially the early environment, of course) and the degree to which genes are involved.He brings in the way that even normally empathic brainwork is disrupted or shut down by stress, fear, hunger, etc, and looks at the way people do appalling things when they have been convinced that "they," the others, are less than human, not worth as much as they themselves are.

He is looking for an explanation of human evil, other than a religious one, and he is not content simply to see it as "the problem of evil." I suppose some of his broad and general statements are obvious enough - when someone does something dreadful to someone else, he (less often she) is suffering from a permanent or temporary breakdown in empathy. Well, yes, it's hard to stab someone, I would guess, if you are empathising with them.

But his absolute emphasis on empathy, and his location of it in the way the brain works, struck me as a new and invaluable insight, based on research and careful thought. If he's right, the depths of human cruelty are not caused by an additional phenomena that most of us don't have most of the time: evil. It's actually caused by a lack of something most of us do have to some degree most of the time: empathy.

The author champions empathy as a civilising treasure to be nourished and cared for. He writes of the "pot of gold" that is the empathic personality that develops in a child who is well supported, loved and properly cared for.

My further thought is this: if adults accept and truly live with the fact of their own mortality, if they see life as a precious and singular event, then perhaps that state of being encourages empathy. From empathy comes compassion - not only in a general way, but also for this person here and now.

If the fact of your own death has never truly occupied you, then perhaps that makes it easier to make light of another's well-being, and perhaps their life too.

"Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." And at once I am linked to common humanity. It is difficult for me consistently to commoditise people, to see them merely as agencies towards what I want to do, to objectify them entirely, if I know that their passing bell will also toll for me.
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39 of 47 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Each drop of empathy waters the flower of peace, 7 May 2011
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This review is from: Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty (Hardcover)
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".

Baron-Cohen is not satisfied with the circularity of the concept of "evil", with tabloid explanations that would have us believe that the reason so-and-so did such-and-such an evil thing is because, well, so-and-so is evil. Instead, he makes a compelling case for the explanatory power of empathy, how it's distributed in the population, how any individual can experience ups and downs of empathy, how neurological damage can reduce or even eliminate empathy altogether, and how empathy can be acquired or encouraged, either through practice as an adult or, perhaps most importantly, by means of good parenting endowing each child with his or her very own "internal pot of gold".

Don't be misled into thinking that this short book must be short on ideas. As with any work of popular science, we see only a fraction of the research that has gone before (much of which is cited in the notes and references). The "ten new ideas" summarized in chapter six give a feel for the scope of empathy as an explanatory tool. These concepts include the "empathy spectrum" and the idea that people at one end of this range have "zero degrees of empathy". Also important to this scientific account, but which may be hard to swallow for anyone used to thinking of evil in metaphysical terms, as some kind of stain on a non-physical soul, is the idea of an "empathy circuit" in the brain. The ventral part of the medial prefrontal cortex doesn't (I imagine) get taught much in Sunday school, and yet its role in thinking about other people's thoughts and feelings marks it out as a crucial region in the brain. The remarkable case of Phineas Gage shows what can happen when the vMPFC is damaged. Gage survived, but he was not the same: his empathy circuit went down.

"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." This is exactly how those Nazi scientists treated the subjects of their experiments (an ironic term, since the prisoners were reduced to mere objects), and it might strike some as strange for science - with its emphasis on objectivity - to have anything at all to say about human feeling. When Baron-Cohen begins listing brain regions and "genes for empathy" (with the usual caveat that genes only ever directly produce proteins), these same sceptics may well feel vindicated.

As with all good science, however, the arguments are well supported with evidence and reasons. More broadly, I think this kind of work is an example of the science of human flourishing in action. In The Moral Landscape Sam Harris develops a powerful case for the importance of science in discriminating between moral values, widely thought to lie outside its scope. However, once we're dealing with facts about human well-being - including, say, facts about levels of empathy - then science not religion is the tool we need.

For example, people with zero degrees of empathy divide into Zero-Positive and Zero-Negative. Both types have no awareness of how they come across to others and think only about their own interests. The important difference is that Zero-Positives (e.g. people with Asperger Syndrome), although they are insensitive to others, do not generally commit acts of cruelty, unlike Zero-Negatives (e.g. psychopaths). Such knowledge is vital in sentencing policy. Clearly, while incarcerating some Zero-Negatives who have committed a crime is justified, in a civilized, compassionate society we should be helping Zero-Positives "to find friendship, companionship and other forms of comfort, without jeopardizing anyone's safety".

Simon Baron-Cohen makes a bold claim in this brilliant book, that empathy is one of the most valuable resources in the world. I'm persuaded by the arguments, and impressed by the humane motives driving the science. Those whose stories he tells are still people, however damaged they may be, and deserving of the best understanding we can manage. His belief that this is scientific will be controversial to some, but that's nothing new. For me, given that empathy is all about switching from a single- to a double- (or triple-?) minded focus of attention, I wonder if one reason why I enjoy the theatre so much is that it is such a good workout for my empathy circuit. Certainly, anything that helps put you in someone else's shoes is good for world peace!
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Research Professor in Psychiatric Social Work, 7 Dec. 2011
This review is from: Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty (Hardcover)
Whislt I know of the work of the author, I do not know him, nor never met him but his Zero Degress of Empathy is one of those RARE books that changes one's professional understanding, research and practice.
In a concise way Baron-Cohen brings together modern neuro-sciences, social and psychological research to provide PRACTICAL understanding of perhaps the most diffuclt of all human dilemmas- thinking of baby Peter Connally, how to understand "how could anybody be persisitently cruel to a child like this"?
The practical, theoretical and ethical implications are profound and is highly relevant to all who work with other human beings, be it in psychiatry, social work, child protection, medicine or teaching etc.
If my students were to read only one book in a year or a decade , this would be it.
Colin Pritchard
Research Professor in Psychiatric Social Work
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A conceptual breakthrough in the theory of empathy, 27 Jun. 2011
By 
Ermanno Arreghini "Ermanno Arreghini" (Trento, Italy) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty (Hardcover)
Just a few words to recommend this text to a wide public of readers, from the amateur readers of neuropsychology and laymen to the professionals.
As a forensic psychiatrist I found the book (and its immense bibliography) full of suggestions of practical use. A clarifying tool in the hands of different qualified professional even outside the medical field. Worth reading and using.
Ermanno Arreghini
Trento-Italy
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5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for everyone!, 29 Dec. 2013
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This book is written by a world renowned expert on Asperger`s Syndrome and a professor of psychiatry and psychology at Cambridge University. It is essential reading for EVERY human being in understanding normal and abnormal human behaviour - especially parents/teachers and those in abusive or neglectful relationships. It explains why it is so important to nurture empathy in young children, and why this could have an impact on the rest of their lives, those around them and even the environment. Reading this book will give you a revelatory insight into why people behave the way they do - and protect you from possible mental or physical abuse - for the rest of your life.

Also by this author: The Essential Difference (understanding the difference between the male and female brain).
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Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty
Zero Degrees of Empathy: A new theory of human cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen (Hardcover - 7 April 2011)
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