Sunday, July 31, 2011

On Evil

Elizabeth Renzetti interviewed Simon Baron-Cohen on his new book The Science of Evil in the Globe and Mail today.  If you picture Borat when you hear that name, you're not alone.  They're cousins.  Anyway, from the article, having not read the book, it's striking how common most of the theories he posits are.

He's got his bit about the amygdala lighting up when we judge emotions from seeing only a person's eyes.  But the rest is straight out of a grade 12 course I teach:  Empathy is on a spectrum within each of us.  It's partly from our genes and parenting and partly from environmental factors.  Some people are naturally closer to zero empathy - typically people with anti-social personality disorder (called psychotic in the article).  People with aspergers often have poor ability to judge emotions from a person's face, but their love of rules keeps them in line.  People in groups, like the Nazis, collectively lose empathy by believing, or being trained to believe, that another group of people is not like them.  I call this "othering"; Baron-Cohen refers to in-group, out-group models.  Even chimpanzees, like Bonobos, display empathy.  I was hoping for an exciting new book on scientific theories of evil, but, judging from this article, I don't think this is it.

For the past forty years or so, the studies to talk about when it comes to understanding loss of empathy in a group have been the ones conducted by Milgram and Zimbardo which suggest that almost any one of us could be made to harm others given the right environmental circumstances.  They aren't mentioned in the paper, but I'd be surprised they aren't in the book.  It makes me think I should turn my course into a book.  But I'd feel remiss because I wouldn't actually be saying anything new.  It's just a collection of studies that have been around for years.  It's exciting to 17-year-olds who have never heard of them though.  And I guess there's a lot of people who haven't taken social psych courses and might love the book.  But I keep looking for new material and keep finding the same stuff being repeated.

Is this the final answer then?  

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