Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

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