Thursday, June 21, 2012

Simon Baron-Cohen talks empathy, evil and justice at the Royal Institution | Carole Jahme | Science |

Simon Baron-Cohen talks empathy, evil and justice at the Royal Institution | Carole Jahme | Science |

Simon Baron-Cohen talks empathy, evil and justice at the Royal Institution

Baron-Cohen spoke at the RI last week about his theory that 'empathic erosion' is behind human cruelty. Carole Jahme asked him about the implications for the caring professions and criminal justice
nurse with elderly woman
Baron-Cohen advocates empathy screening for anyone who wants to work in the caring professions. Photograph: Burger/Phanie/Rex Features
The Royal Institution of Great Britain's very first psychology lecture was delivered by the clergyman and scientist John Barlow in 1843. Barlow was committed to the humane management of people with psychological disorders: the title of his lecture was "On Man's Powers of Controlling or Preventing the Manifestation of Insanity in Himself".
Jump forward 168 years and Simon Baron-Cohen, the most recent psychologist to lecture at the RI, is similarly committed to the humane treatment of those exhibiting maladaptive behaviour. In many ways, his new research builds upon Barlow's early work.
Baron-Cohen, whose book Zero Degrees of Empathy has just been published, wants to raise awareness of the human empathic system and the devastating consequences when it malfunctions. He wants society to progress from condemning people as evil and instead understand why they acted without due concern for the pain they would cause.
It was a full house and with the RI's 19th century clock reliably ticking, and its president His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent in attendance, the evening's lecture was introduced by Claudia Hammond (presenter of the BBC Radio 4 show All in the Mind).
I was curious to see how accepting the public would be of Baron-Cohen's new rubric of an empathic spectrum, where some people score zero and this extreme "empathic erosion" (in all its guises) increases the likelihood that they will commit acts of cruelty, murder or genocide. As hormones, brain structure and genes are all implicated there is an inescapably biologically deterministic element to Baron-Cohen's research.
"Your free will may not be 'free' but determined," said Baron-Cohen. The general public often respond with hostile, knee jerk responses to statements like that, so I expected someone to challenge this assertion that we are programmed animals. But the RI audience (many clasping box-fresh copies of his book ready for signing) were receptive to his nature-and-nurture discourse on the potential for evil.
Baron-Cohen led the audience through his research, highlighting controversial sex differences and group differences. (He possesses a voice so melodic and soothing that His Royal Highness nodded off, though to be fair, he may have been cogitating with his eyes shut).
In a series of slides he explained the relevance of hormones (testosterone in particular); the brain's empathy circuit (amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex and ventral striatum in particular); genes (CYPIIBI, WFSI, NTRKI and GABRB3 being the first four genes for empathy that have been located); behaviour (systemising versus empathising and their extremes); and environmental influences (Bowlby's theory of attachment being of immense significance here).
Empathy is a primal ability that evolved long before our ancestors developed spoken language. By focusing on empathy as the foundation of virtuous behaviour and acknowledging its absence or erosion as a fuel for human vices, Baron-Cohen has unified the whole of human psychological behaviour. And by teasing apart and measuring the biological components and environmental factors that contribute to how much or how little empathy an individual possesses, this research clarifies our understanding of human nature.
Baron-Cohen concluded his lecture by emphasising the importance of preserving empathy and using empathy to improve our lives and, as he himself commented, he did so, "At the risk of sounding aspirational".
Zero Degrees of Empathy forms an apex with Frans De Waal's research on the evolution of empathy, described in The Age of Empathy, and with Jeremy Rifkin's historical account of empathy, coalesced in The Empathic Civilisation. Despite have taken separate research paths, their work has led them to the same place where they now stand in agreement that once empathy has been recognised as a cooperative force that can heal (even on a global scale), equality between people and between nations becomes possible.

The health care system

How a society treats its most vulnerable and its most dangerous is an indication of how civilised it is.
Earlier this year the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman highlighted the abuse suffered by the elderly in care. But in fact none of the UK's most vulnerable groups, such as children in care, are receiving the protection they deserve. Not enough empathy is shown and too few empathic people are employed to care.
The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) is pushing for change in the academic training of nurses. From 2013 training will consist of a degree programme, where maths and science at GCSE and a science at A-level with 260 UCAS points, will become compulsory at some universities. But Baron-Cohen's work has shown that some people with the systemising ability required for academic success have this strength at the expense of empathising.
Affective empathy is required to keep patients comfortable, especially patients unable to articulate their own needs, such as people with brain damage. A possible result of the forthcoming NMC changes could see the nursing profession less caring, as they will be employing people who can correctly answer textbook questions in a class room, instead of employing people who can intuitively respond to a patient's individual needs.
I asked Baron-Cohen whether it would be a good idea to test empathy levels before someone is employed in any of the caring professions.
There should be a screening process at an early stage, before the interview. But this cannot replace face-to-face interviews – some people may consider themselves empathetic when they are not and award themselves a higher score on the questionnaire than they should have."
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, told me:
"Nurses need a balance between theory and practice. In addition to the standard academic entry requirement it would be useful to assess empathetic ability and to spend time on our Helpline and listen to the concerns of patients and relatives when they have a husband/wife in hospital."
The general communication skills of nurses are assessed by the NHS, but empathy per se is not. Without such tests, systemisers can fake empathy to pass interviews but may go on to unwittingly endanger the lives of those in their care.
Social work is another profession that needs empathic insight – to anticipate, read between the lines and correctly assess the needs of vulnerable people. But for now social services in the UK do not measure the empathic ability of applicants.

Criminal justice system

The psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is used internationally. Baron-Cohen would like the updated version (due for publication in 2012) to include his paradigm of empathic disorders. Did he think this would result in fewer people being criminalised and more therapeutic centres to treat them?

"Yes, I think therapeutic centres could increase – we are frequently too quick to condemn people. Limits are required by society and detention is necessary, but I want to open the debate on individuals low in empathy. I am aware of a programme of music therapy being used at present with men in jail, some of these people are themselves victims and this therapy has positive results. Those held within the criminal justice system must be accorded dignity."
Within six years of John Barlow's lecture at the Royal Institution his research had helped to inject compassion and understanding into early Victorian thinking. Barlow wrote that, "kind and rational treatment", was being applied to those suffering psychological abnormalities, "instead of the chains and whips of former times".
The wounds from those chains and whips can still be felt. I wonder how long it will take for Baron-Cohen's research Simon Baron-Cohen

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