Sympathize or Evil

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Dahmer was sentenced to 15 terms of life imprisonment on February 15, Shaw said it's crucial we don't just talk to each other about taboo subjects, but also try and gain understanding into the mindset of what people could be going through. Dahmer, for instance, said he kept parts of his victims because he didn't want them to leave. Loneliness, of course, isn't an excuse for pouring hydrochloric acid into someone's brain to try and create a sex zombie out of them.

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But tackling the problems of isolation may play a part in minimising the chance these things happen. Ask them what does that mean to you, and you can start teasing apart what they're actually talking about. Sympathising with serial killers may be too much of a wild starting point for many people. So another place to look into is our own psyche. There's also an evolutionary advantage to playing through horrific acts in your mind, which may come as a comfort to those who don't understand their darkest thoughts.

Shaw explained that it's an adaptive quality because it allows you to realise the actual repercussions of doing something. For most of us, we realise we don't actually want to follow through with a brutal murder because the consequences wouldn't be worth it. It's a little like the more banal areas of life, when you're preparing for a presentation or a pitch and you run through the most likely scenarios and questions you might face. When you look at actual murder, it's likely to be more based on impulse.

Among the "smorgasbord" of other ideas Shaw discusses in her book are cute aggression , modern slavery and sex trafficking, dimorphous emotions, and zoophilia. She also talks about personality disorders like psychopathy and narcissism, and the problems these labels can have on our understanding of other people. Shaw said "psychopath" in particular is often used as a synonym for evil, which she has a massive issue with. Monsters aren't real, that's not a thing, they can't be monsters. There are certain predispositions, such as a lack of empathy, that could make it easier to hurt others.

But this doesn't necessarily mean they will. In fact, most psychopaths don't kill or even think about hurting others. Read more: Here's why CEOs often have the traits of a psychopath. The human brain has been proven to be a lot more flexible than it was thought to be in other points in history. This is why Shaw believes anyone who says that people can't change in any psychological dimension are "full of s--t.

There are so many reasons why over the course of 80 years, or 90 years, or years, or 20, depending on how long you live, you are going to change. Jennifer Skeem, for instance, works with people other therapists have written off. She believes psychopathy is a misunderstood condition , and has shown through her work that even those with the highest scores on measures of psychopathy can reduce their violent and criminal behavior after mental health counseling and drug abuse rehabilitation. Shaw's argument is this: wouldn't it be better for everyone if we all realised humans are capable of horrible things, but the way to be prepared for them is to face them, and not hide behind vague, misrepresentative labels like "evil" that dismiss the humanity of a whole range of people?

From casual violence to genocide, acts of cruelty can be traced back to how the perpetrator identifies with other people, argues psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen.

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Is he right? Lucy Adeniji — an evangelical Christian and author of two books on childcare — trafficked two girls and a year-old woman from Nigeria to work as slaves in her east London home. She made them toil for 21 hours a day and tortured them if they displeased her. The youngest girl was 11 years old.

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Sentencing her to and-a-half years in prison last month, Judge Simon Oliver said: "You are an evil woman. I have no doubt you have ruined these two girls' lives. They will suffer from the consequences of the behaviour you meted out to them for the rest of their lives. Most people would probably agree with Judge Oliver's description of Adeniji as evil, but Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at the University of Cambridge, would not be one of them.

Human cruelty has fascinated and puzzled Baron-Cohen since childhood. When he was seven years old, his father told him the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades and soap. He also recounted the story of a woman he met who had her hands severed by Nazi doctors and sewn on opposite arms so the thumbs faced outwards. These images stuck in Simon's mind. He couldn't understand how one human could treat another with such cruelty.

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The explanation that the Nazis were simply evil didn't satisfy him. For Baron-Cohen, science provides a more satisfactory explanation for evil and that explanation is empathy — or rather, lack of empathy. People who lack empathy see others as mere objects. Empathy, like height, is a continuous variable, but for convenience, Baron-Cohen splits the continuum into six degrees — seven if you count zero empathy.

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Answering the empathy quotient EQ questionnaire, developed by Baron-Cohen and colleagues, will put you somewhere on the empathy bell curve. People with zero degrees of empathy will be at one end of the bell curve and those with six degrees of empathy at the other end. Baron-Cohen provides vignettes of what a typical person with x-degrees of empathy would be like.

We're told, for example, that a person with level two empathy quite low "blunders through life, saying all the wrong things eg, 'You've put on weight!

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Being at the far ends of the bell curve extremely high or extremely low empathy scores is not necessarily pathological. It is possible to have zero degrees of empathy and not be a murderer, torturer or rapist, although you're unlikely to be any of these things if you are at the other end of the empathy spectrum — level six empathy.

They might not be interacting very much with other people but they are interacting with the world of objects. They might have low empathy but it's not interfering. In that respect it's not pathological and they don't need a diagnosis. They have found a perfect fit between their mind and the lifestyle that they have.

Baron-Cohen doesn't see very high empathy as potentially debilitating. He sees someone with level six empathy as possessing a "natural intuition in tuning into how other are feeling". I was intrigued to read a different account of empathy overdrive. In a recent newspaper article, Fiona Torrance described the hell of hyper- empathy. She has a rare condition known as mirror-touch synaesthesia.

She first became aware of it aged six when she saw butcher birds hanging mice on a wire fence. Empathy excess, however, is much rarer than empathy deficit. And while people with empathy excess suffer alone, those with empathy deficits cause others to suffer. Or at least some of them do. At zero degrees of empathy are two distinct groups. Baron-Cohen calls them zero-negative and zero-positive.

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Zero-positives include people with autism or Asperger's syndrome. They have zero empathy but their "systemising" nature means they are drawn to patterns, regularity and consistency. As a result, they are likely to follow rules and regulations — the patterns of civic life. Zero-negatives are the pathological group. These are people with borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

They are capable of inflicting physical and psychological harm on others and are unmoved by the plight of those they hurt.

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Baron-Cohen says people with these conditions all have one thing in common: zero empathy. The question is: did people with these personality disorders lose their empathy or were they born that way? One of Baron-Cohen's longitudinal studies — which began 10 years ago — found that the more testosterone a foetus generates in the womb, the less empathy the child will have post- natally. In other words, there is a negative correlation between testosterone and empathy. It would appear the sex hormone is somehow involved in shaping the "empathy circuits" of the developing brain.

Given that testosterone is found in higher quantities in men than women, it may come as no surprise that men score lower on empathy than women.

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So there is a clear hormonal link to empathy. Another biological factor is genetics. Recent research by Baron-Cohen and colleagues found four genes associated with empathy — one sex steroid gene, one gene related to social-emotional behaviour and two associated with neural growth.

Does that mean, in the future, we will have gene-therapy to correct for low empathy? I would probably put more emphasis on early interventions — environmental interventions. I think empathy could be taught in schools for example.

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The other side of the empathy coin is environment. John Bowlby, the British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who developed "attachment theory", was the first to point out the lifelong impact of early neglect and abuse. Early attachment is one big risk factor for low empathy. With functional magnetic resonance imaging fMRI scanners, it is possible to look at the effect hormones, genes and the environment have on the brain.