Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty

Simon Baron-Cohen

Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty
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Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty

Simon Baron-Cohen

Simon Baron-Cohen, expert in autism and developmental psychopathology, has always wanted to isolate and understand the factors that cause people to treat others as if they were mere objects. In this book he proposes a radical shift, turning the focus away from evil and on to the central factor, empathy. Unlike the concept of evil, he argues, empathy has real explanatory power. Putting empathy under the microscope he explores four new ideas: firstly, that we all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum, from high to low, from six degrees to zero degrees. Secondly, that deep within the brain lies the ‘empathy circuit’. How this circuit functions determines where we lie on the empathy spectrum. Thirdly, that empathy is not only something we learn but that there are also genes associated with empathy. And fourthly, while a lack of empathy leads to mostly negative results, is it always negative? Full of original research, Zero Degrees of Empathy presents a new way of understanding what it is that leads individuals down negative paths, and challenges all of us to consider replacing the idea of evil with the idea of empathy-erosion.


We have probably all had experiences where we become so self-absorbed that we fail to notice others or the impact that our actions have. Potentially, we can become cruel and insensitive. We have probably also met people who instantly make us feel important and at ease, who seem to care. We read about people doing absolutely terrible things and try to understand it in terms of good and evil. For Doctor Baron-Cohen, it is all about empathy, the ability to relate to other people’s feelings.

We can, for a number of reasons, turn our empathy off temporarily; some of us feel intense empathy most of the time, whereas some have little or no empathy and their view of the world is totally self-centred – so much so, that they can perform extremely cruel acts without ever feeling remorse. It is during the first 12 months that babies become attached to a significant other and develop empathy; without that attachment, empathy doesn’t develop.

Baron-Cohen posits that we lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum, and that this measure determines how we interact with others. This book is not as readable as, say, Oliver Sacks; nevertheless it challenges some of our most deeply held assumptions.

Mark Rubbo is managing director of Readings

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