This week we finished reading “The Science of Evil” book written by Baron-Cohen. As a whole, I really did enjoy the book and I thought he did a great job of explaining the theory of empathy and how he relates it to evil. Baron-Cohen describes what he has developed as the Empathy Bell-Curve which he states that everyone is on. Ranging from 0-6 each level represents a different stage of empathy one might have. At one extreme end, an individual might have Zero-Negative (psychopaths, narcissism, and borderline personality disorder) or Zero-Positive (autism spectrum disorder).
It made complete sense to me that he included both environmental and genetic factors when discussing how an individual ends up at this extreme end of the Empathy Scale. He spoke of this term of “internal pot of gold” which is parental affection, love and everything important that a child should never be deprived of in the beginning stages of life. I really love this term! I think it demonstrates how important parental love and affection is to development. Baron-Cohen also touches on the “genes of empathy”. Although he does state that there are not “actual” genes for empathy, there is evidence that there are genes that influence our empathy. It definitely makes sense to me that people have predispositions for a lack of empathy; this explains the situations of individuals who have grown up in seemingly loving, supportive households, but still become psychopaths.
We have spoken in class several times now about how people who commit evil acts “objectify” the person that they are harming in order to have a lack of empathy. It was also mentioned that if the individual begins to talk about their family, there is a better chance to lessen the harm. I came across this news article in the Vancouver Sun about a man who ran into a woman’s vehicle purposely, kidnapped her, and brutally raped and beat her. He told her that he intended to kill her, but he didn’t follow through. The woman began talking about the life that she had that included her children and family. She humanized herself to the perpetrator and therefore he started to empathize for her – he was no longer able to cause her harm. You can read the news clip here.
In “The Science of Evil”, having empathy is seen to be a good thing. It’s a trait that seems to be a desirable and keeps people from doing violent or evil things – which was demonstrated in the news article above. Switching over to Baumeister’s book, however, he gives us a different view on empathy that I honestly wasn’t expecting. Empathy can also be used to increase cruelty. Baumeister explains this by using an example of the sadist. He states, “a true sadist is not lacking in empathy – on the contrary, empathy helps the sadist to derive maximum pleasure and inflict the greatest pain” (Baumeister,1997). This changes my view slightly – an individual having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean the elimination of the chances of violence. An individual that has empathy seems to be a more dangerous recipe since they are capable of understanding what the person they are harming is feeling and maximize pain.
Moving forward with this week’s readings from Baumeister (1997), something that really stuck with me was when he talks about self-esteem. He actually states in his book that low self-esteem does not cause violence, it is the threat to one’s high self-esteem or ego that causes someone to be violent. This was difficult to wrap my head around. I always thought that people with low self-esteem would be the ones more prone to violence. What comes to mind is bullies. Someone bullies another individual because they have low self-esteem and that is their way of feeling better about themselves. Although I don’t disagree with what Baumeister is saying, I just have an issue with completely refuting the notion that people with low-self esteem don’t lash out in violence. I even asked three different family members today what they thought, and all three immediately thought it would be individuals with low self-esteem. So, I figured it’d be helpful to do a bit of research. Have people done studies that have produced results on both sides of the fence?
I came across an article that discusses the different findings on either side of the debate in numerous studies that have been conducted (and also some that yielded contradictory results). It’s called “Are violent people more likely to have low self-esteem or high self-esteem? (Ostrowsky, 2010) – seemed fitting! Interestingly, Baumeister is actually involved in one of the studies that is included. According to this study, self-esteem and violence do not yet have a clear relationship. If you are interested in reading the article, Ostrowsky (2009) goes into the possible reasons for this such as the fact that there are different dimensions of self-esteem and the problems that arise from attempting to measure self-esteem. As I said before, I don’t necessarily disagree with Baumeister (1997). I do really agree with the notion that violence can stem from a threatened ego. However, especially after reading Ostrowsky’s (2010) article, I think that low self-esteem should still be considered to be a factor. More research needs to be conducted in order to get a more clear relation between these two entities. I would be interested to see the results of further research with studies that took these issues of measurement and self-esteem dimensions into consideration.
That’s all for this weeks blog! I hope you enjoyed!
Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Baumeister, R. (1997). Evil: Inside human cruelty and violence. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Ostrowsky, Michael K. “Are violent people more likely to have low self-esteem or high self-esteem?.” Aggression and violent behavior 15.1 (2010):69.
Vancouver Sun. (2016). Perpetrator of violent sex assaults near Prince George granted day parole. Retrieved from http://vancouversun.com/news/crime/perpetrator-of-violent-sex-assault-near-prince-george-granted-day-parole.