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The Science of Evil and Empathy

The front page of today's Globe and Mail jumped out at me. "Can science really explain evil?" the headline asked.  As an atheist and believer in the principles of attachment parenting, I was intrigued by both the question and the double-barreled definition of evil that accompanied it.

evil [ee-vuhl]

- adjective

1. morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked

2. a lack of empathy driven by neurocircuitry, genetics and social influence

Ah, yes.  Evil as a horrible, unexplainable thing that we can express shock and outrage and horror at versus evil as something that is scientifically explainable and at the nexus of nature versus nurture.

The empathy spectrum

The Globe and Mail article The anatomy of evil discusses the findings from Professor Simon Baron-Cohen's new book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty and presents them in the context of the recent attacks in Norway.  Prof. Baron-Cohen explains that there is a quantifiable empathy spectrum upon which we all sit and that "reminds us that none of us are angels and none of us is the devil."  The spectrum, he says, is influenced by three interwoven factors:

  • The empathy circuit in the brain that controls functions like emotional recognition and response.

  • The genetic component based on several genes that appear to be linked to empathetic behaviour.

  • The social factors which include upbringing (was it cruel and neglectful or stable and loving) as well as pressure from other environmental forces.

The article also looks at the types of positive and negative events and and upbringing that can influence whether someone will end up committing atrocious acts as a result of lacking empathy. On the negative side, empathy can be disrupted through fatigue, anger, drinking and other fleeting factors (even in someone who is in the normal range on the empathy scale). It can also be disrupted through more irreversible factors like emotional and physical deprivation in childhood.


The societal factors element of empathy begins with the way we are nurtured at home by our parents, but it continues out into the world. Our ability to empathize with people who are different from us can be influenced through propaganda and fear. The Globe and Mail article explains:
Either for reasons of propoganda, or ideology, or being bombarded day after day with the idea that your group is under threat, and the enemy is this other group, you come to believe it. "Your beliefs then change your behaviour, change your empathy toward the out group," Prof. Baron-Cohen says. "I'm not wanting to simplify what happens in these examples of mass massacre, but clearly empathy isn't just the result of your individual voyage through life. We are all subject to societal influences.

Of course, different factors work together too. Quite often teens who get caught up in neo-Nazi or other terrorist groups have suffered from a lack of nurturing at home and find the sense of belonging they never had at home in a group that then teaches them to hate others.

Addressing our empathy deficit (and that of our children)

Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.

- Bradley Miller, humorist

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the Empathy Deficit for Blog Action Day. I was questioning why so few people seem to care about the issue of poverty and about the need to teach the next generation to do better.

Don't let your children think this way

When people can wave off or laugh about an issue because the dead babies are in Ethiopia instead of in the United States it tells a very sad story. When people will donate to earthquake relief in Japan but not to drought and famine relief in Somalia it tells a very sad story.  When people pretend that poverty doesn't exist in their own city just because it isn't visible on their street, it tells a very sad story.

Earlier this week I wrote a post on the Bad Moms Club called We Can't Always Protect Our Children. It is true. We focus so much on bubble wrapping our children to ensure that they never get hurt (as impossible as that is). But how much time do we spend teaching them to care about others? How much time do we spend teaching them to break down barriers and to learn about others instead of seeking refuge with others who are like us? How much time to we spend modeling good, ethical, anti-oppressive, caring decisions and actions for our children? How much time do we spend inviting them to join us in those actions and decisions?

The empathy circuit and genetic factors may be outside of our control, but the societal factors are there for us as parents and as the village raising the children, to influence. Let's make that a positive influence, one that helps empathy to grow, rather than a negative influence that allows evil to fester.

How are you helping empathy grow?

Nature, Nurture and More : Books that Influenced Me
The Empathy Deficit
Teaching Tolerance
Progressive Parenting from a Position of Privilege (read the comments for great ideas)

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Reader Comments (24)

Interesting points. I am very interested to see when (I can only imagine it is a when) that scientists show a link between early trauma (CIO and circumcision come readily to mind) and a lack of empathy in later life. It basically would mean we have raised generations of potentially sociopathic people through a systemic disregard for the rights of the baby.

I personally haven't donated to Somalia because I'm mistrustful of how/if the aid will actually get to the starving babies due to a) top-heavy charitable organizations and b) corrupt governments/leadership in those stricken countries. If I could carry the food there myself I would, but voluntourism is apparently also a no-go these days...

July 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLorien


Thank you for triggering a bunch of feelings that I've been supressing for a long time. I probably needed it.

Not sure if I should be saying "you're welcome" or "I'm sorry".

July 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting


I look critically at how much charities spend on administration and on fundraising costs (the latter is the bigger concern for me). Some of the Canadian charities have given fairly concrete examples of the work that they are doing with the funding that they receive. http://humanitariancoalition.ca/index.php/site/newsRoomArticle/east_africa_crisis_update_members_respond/

July 30, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I stopped donating to Africa when I realised that people had been donating millions and millions, probably billions by now, over years and years, and nothing has changed- someone pointed out to me that the armies and war lords don't march on empty stomachs. That money is going somewhere, but definitely not to the mouths of the hungry innocents we would like it to. I donate to children's charities instead that focus on teaching people about good parenting.

July 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCandice

I've alway thought evil equals numbness, i.e. the numbness in degree to which we don't heal ourselves (from our childhood, for example, or from traumatic experiences) and to which we do not feel for others' difficult experiences (poverty, abuse, genocide). Empathy is a learned emotion, not one with which we're born, and Baron-Cohen seems correct that we all have our moments of empathy and/or non-empathy. People who commit acts of evil are not in touch with the deep interconnectedness of all things. Atheist or not, something besides me makes trees grow and forces the bud through the green fuse of the flower, to paraphrase D. Thomas, and allows each living animal to breathe in and out. To connect with that force in everyone can help me feel more connectedness and less otherness, even if I don't donate money or do anythign greater in my day than love my child and tell her so.

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter54 Hour Mama

The best ethical lessons are the examples we live every day. Pat answer, I know, but aside from that, I liked the caterpillar story. I've had several occasions to encourage my boys not to step on ants. I also remind my boys periodically that it's okay that some people are gay, that just as some people grow up to be left handed, some people grow up to be homosexual. I actually just posted on my own blog recently that I need to be more mindful to be more intentional about talking to my boys about our privileged identities: to talk about race, even though we're white, to talk about differently abled individuals, even though we're all able bodied, to talk about women's equality, even though they're boys. Being aware of our privileged and subordinated identities helps us better understand how they impact our lives.

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKevin Zimmerman

I just took the Simon Baron-Cohen "Empathy Quotient" test. Scored a 58, above average. http://glennrowe.net/BaronCohen/EmpathyQuotient/EmpathyQuotient.aspx Empathy seems to mean ability to relate to others, not just sympathize with them. I think often I don't relate to others but I always try to emotionally commiserate with them.

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLuna

Great post PhdinParenting! A great reminder that teaching empathy needs to be a priority. This is something I try to make a conscious effort to address regularly. Gabor Mate also has some very interesting information on nurturing and behavior in adults.

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJayda

I tried this test and scored a 63. Both my kids, especially my son, are very empathic. And as a parent, it can be really difficult to see him feel other people's hurts, but it's also part of what makes him some a special little boy. I frequently don't agree with people but get where they are coming from. It's too bad so many of our lawmakers can't do the same.

Annie--Didn't read your post at Bad Moms Club yet, but I'm wondering if you saw the recent Atlantic piece about how we actually shouldn't try to protect our kids from every negative experience. A dear friend of mine died from breast cancer in June and as difficult as it was, I think it was good for my kids to see my grief (and there was no way I could possibly hide it from them). Yes, they saw that bad things sometimes happen to the people we love, but they also saw how everyone gathered around my friend's husband, and how my husband supported me during the weeks following, and my son saw all the people who came to the memorial service that loved her. And in a way I think it prepared them for their own loss, because we lost a close family member 3 weeks after that.

As for evil, I find it a difficult subject to wrap my head around. Tess Gerritsen tackles the subject in "The Mephisto Club" which is fiction, but I was fascinated by some of the ideas she puts forth.

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKayris

Kevin, I think you're on to something. There was actually an article a couple years ago in a pop magazine (Time? Newsweek?) that described a set of studies showing that kids notice differences (like color of T-shirt or race) and they have the in-group attitude early on. The implication was that it's actually better to discuss things like race, culture, or sexuality with them because young kids are not "color blind" as some people seem to think. That is, it's better to point out our differences and talk about how it doesn't make one group better or worse than the other, rather than trying to pretend like we don't notice race or class differences (as if they don't matter). I admire your approach with your boys!

July 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSylvia@MaMammalia

Empathy starts the moment our babies are born, and we LISTEN to them like the real people they are.

I recently wrote about our human family - our connectedness with everyone on our planet - our greater HUMANness. My daughter pointed out that everyone in the world has a mother or a father or a friend... and each of those has the same... so really, aren't we all just a big family.


It's not EASY to see everyone as related when you're an adult, when you're "jaded", when you're self-focused and isolated. But for a child, it's simple. We're all people. Period.

Which means, the empathy that we show for each other reverberates to everyone we encounter. To future generations. We aren't living isolated lives. We're all intertwined, whether or not (as you mentioned) people like to believe so. We should take a lesson from the innocence of children.

What an awful tweet to you, btw. *shudder*

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkelly @kellynaturally

Some thoughts about creating empathy:

1. Definitely second the notion that our empathic reaction to our children helps them develop empathy.

2. Focusing on the "evil" at home (for us, people who lost homes in a recent tornado, for example) helps us realize that bad things don't just happen to abstract others, and it provides empowerment as we realize there are often concrete ways to affect real change. I went through a period where my (anti-war) activism was giving me nightmares. For my sanity, I had to shift my engagement to places where I could see tangible results and touch the people I tried to help. I'm grateful for those with the emotional strength to do more abroad, and we do still contribute financially when we can (and stay aware of recent events).

3. Find daily ways to show how connection to others can make everyone happier. I encourage my son to gently pat the kitty, I tell him how much I love his hugs and kisses, and we make a point to have him interact with other children as much as possible. We're not quite at the cognitive point where sharing makes sense, but that's next on our list. And even though he doesn't understand yet, we talk about why we garden and patronize local farmers, and we take him to community events so he understands himself as part of a larger group.

August 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Annie - You write about such meaningful topics, I am always challenged in some way when I read your work. I have decided, though, that I can only give so much money/time/emotional space to what goes on on planet earth. I focus on one or two charities and that is all I can do as an individual myself. I rotate the charities, though, as the years go by. Theoretically, I get where you are coming from in addressing an "empathy deficit," at a societal level (otherness, etc). However, I can't say from an individual level, that I would call it evil to not focus on everything on the planet at once. It is hard enough for me to have the resources to work to help support my home, care for my children, care for the aged in my family, plus add on many other commitments. As I have grown older, I stick to one or two charities and causes and rotate them. I chose to work in the helping profession, to impact the planet (where I can) to leave it, hopefully, a little better off.

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Morelli


I don't think it is evil to not focus on everything on the planet at once. Not at all. But I do think that when we close our eyes to what is happening and when we retreat to our safe space of people like us, that it creates a breeding ground in which evil can grow.

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

hi Annie - okay, thanks for the clarity. I can see that we as a society in general to close our eyes to what is happening in the world. Things are very polarized in the US right now. It makes me very sad. Sometimes I think that I become polarized in my politics as well. I feel very helpless as I watch what's going on in the US right now. I remain active in e-mail and letter campaigns. And also sometimes I get very very tired, as I have so much to do, and it seems like a lot of the things in the US political arena are really ego driven and a big game. but there are a lot of other issues that I am focused on such as maternal mental health and sadly the maternal death rate. I also boycott Nestlé. I've been doing that for many years. Sadly, this really has not had an effect on the company's policies.I do really enjoy reading your blog and I read it often. I just don't comment so much. Take care, Kathy

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathy Morelli

My opinion is that it's the otherness which is the most critical piece. People just think that they are the most important and others are not. Individual feelings and comfort are paramount while that of the "other" is hardly an afterthought.

I find that many people are very hypocritical, perhaps you do as well. Some evils are "convenient" or "popular" to tackle, while others are not. This results in crazy dichotomies like in Quebec, where people endlessly profess compassion and helping the less fortunate, yet they rank dead last in Canada for charitable giving (http://www.cbc.ca/news/story/2010/12/20/con-charity-report.html) and Canada ranks behind the US -- the popular example of selfishness, tyranny and evil some say. Turns out that the ones who talk most about helping actually help the least. When I lived there I actually had to ask someone to vacate a seat on a crowded train for my 8 month pregnant wife.

Now, one thing that I will also say is that there are many people who are disadvantaged but don't do enough about it themselves. This is another use of "other". Others put us here, others are keeping us here, others have unfair advantages, others are ruining our lives. The same thing that allows powerful people to do evil is the what allows disadvantaged people to stay disadvantaged.

To me, evil is when you harm others for profit, be it money or pleasure or power or your own survival. Genocidal dictators are evil, abusers are evil, thieves are evil, etc. As such, there is very little real evil in our own society, at least as far as our laws let it be seen. However, I still believe that many many people are evil, in their hearts. If given the chance I believe that people would generally be terrible to each other, but they don't because people are cowards and don't want to risk confrontation, retribution or getting caught since we have law enforcement.

I care very strongly about and try to nurture empathy and compassion in our family. Wrote about it in http://www.perfectingparenthood.com/content/how-build-compassionate-kids-deadly-beasts-cannibals-empathy-and-enlightenment" rel="nofollow">How to Build Compassionate Kids: Deadly Beasts, Cannibals, Empathy, and Enlightenment.

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlex | Perfecting Dad

Those studies are referenced extensively in Nurture Shock.

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbhn

I'm failing to see how empathy is the opposite of evil, especially empathy as defined by Baron-Cohen's quiz, which seems to define empathy, in large part, as social awareness and comfort - basically as being an extrovert as opposed to an introvert. Of course some people who commit atrocious acts fit that profile - weird loner who cut up worms as a kid - but many perpetrators of genocide are loving parents and overall social people... the Nazis made a big thing out of loving animals and treating them humanely. And a strong personal identification with people around you can in some cases be totally in line with hatred of the other - think of fascists' love for their state which leads to hatred of others, or fundamentalists' love for their religious community.

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChanna


Perhaps that depends on how you define empathy. I was seeing it in the larger context of being able to relate to and sympathize with all human beings, not just those who are like us. That is why I see the "otherness" factor as being critical in the discussion of evil and empathy. I happen to believe (as unpopular as it is sometimes) that religious fundamentalism can be extremely dangerous (and fascism is, of course, dangerous).

August 2, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Yes, but your definition sounds less like scientific empathy-circuit, genetic etc stuff and more like what most of us would call "goodness".

August 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

This article prompts all sorts of philosophical thoughts in my head. Surely evil is subjective? Morals are not set in stone.

Is the second definition of evil from a dictionary? I have never seen it being described in that way before...

August 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ewer

"....it tells a very sad story."

You use this refrain a lot, and I think you mean it, and believe it, and I think you are pointing to it as a problem that increased empathy would help solve.

But, strictly, insofar as you are making an argument, this is a fallacy. It is only a sad story if we've already decided that the moral outcomes are the ones that line up with empathetic outcomes. That is, it's only sad, in a normative way, for those who already feel great empathy for distant victims. Someone who doesn't feel that way will be completely unmoved by the offered emotional judgment that things are sad, or tragedies, or don't need to happen.

There might be some normal range for emotional responses to distant evil, but it cannot be the basis for a moral position (one should do X). That's a fallacy (a common one; a famous one): there is no ought from an is. It also skirts along another fallacy, the naturalism fallacy, which makes the mistake of attributing moral worth according to natural (inherent) facts.

There are plenty of arguments for normative actions to help distant victims. Relying on some common feeling of sadness isn't a good one. You may have just been using it stylistically, but it reads like an argument, so I treat it like one.

Also, I scored a 27 for empathy. That probably means something: either I'm a sociopath, or I'm hyper-rational.

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBackpacking Dad

Interesting and thought provoking post. I am always struck by the amount of people who say things like "ah, who cares about research for AIDS/Lung Cancer/insert disease here", because the person "brought it on themself". Gross.

As for my children, I am always struck by just how colour blind kids really are. My son is 3 3/4 ;) and when he describes a person it is always girl/boy, what they are wearing hat/sunglasses, if they are smiling or nice or sad or grumpy. I do not think he has every noticed the colour of person's skin or their socioeconomic status. My daughter, at 8, is aware of differences, but not in a negative way, just in a "that's how it is" thing, and I love that she wants to donate her toys to the kids in Haiti. I wish our kids could teach us a bit more about empathy to negate the influence that we will soon have on them.

August 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenn

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