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Surprising Science

Is Evil Just a Lack of Empathy?

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom wonders that if evil is empathy erosion, and empathy erosion is a form of illness, then is evil nothing more than a particularly awful psychological disorder?

What’s the Latest Development?

Two new books examine the relationship between wrongdoing and psychological states. Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test will tell you if you’re sinister enough to qualify for the club: “You can score yourself on traits like ‘glibness/superficial charm,’ ‘lack of remorse or guilt,’ ‘promiscuous sexual behavior’ and 17 other traits. As one psychologist tells Ronson, if you are bothered at the thought of scoring high, then don’t worry. You’re not a psychopath.” The Science of Evil by Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen says that evil is essentially the corrosion of our empathy faculty. 

What’s the Big Idea?

There are genetic and environmental factors that determine one’s ability to empathize with the human condition. Cases of autism and Asperger syndrome are examples of genetic impediments to empathy while the behavior of psychopaths, as defined by Ronson, may be learned. In these latter cases, where sinister psychology is learned rather than pre-programmed, can it be treated? If evil is another term for ‘lack of empathy’, are there procedures through which individuals can be brought to recognize the value in how others feel?


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