Wednesday, June 22, 2011

On empathy: psychopaths, sociopaths and aspies

Last week a startup CTO, who didn't know my background, characterized all CEOs as "warm sociopaths" :-) He is at least partly right: many business and political leaders are good at reading other people's thoughts and emotions, but lack genuine concern for their well being. On the other hand, many geeks are very bad at mind reading or emotional perception, yet adhere to a strict moral code.

Cambridge cognitive scientist Simon Baron-Cohen (his cousin is the comic Sacha) classifies different low-empathy types below. See this podcast talk and this earlier post about his book on autism and the systematizing / empathizing spectrum. His latest book is specifically about empathy.

I’m O.K., You’re a Psychopath (NYTimes): ... For Baron-Cohen, psychopaths are just one population lacking in empathy. ... Baron-Cohen calls these ... groups “Zero-Negative” because there is “nothing positive to recommend them” and they are “unequivocally bad for the sufferer and those around them.” He provides a thoughtful discussion of the usual sad tangle of bad genes and bad environments that lead to the creation of these Zero-Negative individuals.

People with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, Baron-Cohen argues, are also empathy-deficient, though he calls them “Zero-Positive.” They differ from psychopaths and the like because they possess a special gift for systemizing; they can “set aside the temporal dimension in order to see — in stark relief — the eternal repeating patterns in nature.” This capacity, he says, can lead to special abilities in domains like music, science and art. More controversially, he suggests, this systemizing impulse provides an alternative route for the development of a moral code — a strong desire to follow the rules and ensure they are applied fairly. Such individuals can thereby be moral without empathy, “through brute logic alone.”

David Brooks addresses related themes in his recent book Social Animals. I highly recommend this podcast talk. His opening monologue is actually very funny -- he notes the similarity between politicians and people with the genetic condition Williams Syndrome :-)

Wikipedia: ... Most individuals with Williams syndrome are highly verbal and overly sociable, having what has been described as a "cocktail party" type personality, and exhibit a remarkable blend of cognitive strengths and weaknesses.[3] Individuals with WS hyperfocus on the eyes of others in social engagements.

... While patients with Williams syndrome often have abnormal proficiency in verbal skills, they do not perform better on verbal tasks than average. This syndrome is characterized more by a deficiency in other areas of processing. [Glib, but often mildly retarded.]

I would guess that "neurotypicals" strike aspies the way that Williams sufferers strike the rest of us. Imagine how disturbing it must be to live in a society dominated by and structured around people so different from yourself.


James D Miller said...

Besides following a strict moral code, another reason that autistics are more trustworthy than sociopaths is that autistics make for horrible liars whereas sociopaths are extremely good at deception.  If your boss is autistic and he promises you that you have a bright future with the company then if it seems like he's telling the truth he probably is.

James Miller

MtMoru said...

"good at reading other people's thoughts and emotions"
"Most individuals with Williams syndrome are highly verbal and overly sociable, having what has been described as a "cocktail party" type personality
I would guess that "neurotypicals" strike aspies the way that Williams sufferers strike the rest of us"
There seems to be a confusion here between empathy and extraversion. They aren't the same and may not even be related.

steve hsu said...

I switched topics slightly with the Brooks talk. He isn't only concerned with empathy -- I just thought the WS/politico observation was funny. WS people *want* to understand what others are thinking (they stare into your eyes) but can't quite manage it. Politicians are actually good at reading other people.

Jimmy Johnson said...

I just read some of BC's book online through google.books. Quite interesting. Especially his pieces on the zero-negative empathy disorders like borderline, narcissism and psychopathy are illuminating. These disorders really are not freak exceptions, they're quite common, often >1-2% of a population. Geoffrey Miller suggested these mental disorders to be the end result of extreme combinations of the Big Five personality factors. Yet, I doubt if that's true, something more's going on; for example, both psychopathy and narcissism seem to be traits by themselves, which are present in humans up to certain degrees -- like extraversion and openness to experience. 

All three zero-negative empathy disorders have given me a double negative feeling; it actually seems Freud wasn't wrong about everything, sometimes environment/parenting does matter greatly how people turn out. Neglect and abuse can be very dangerous for a child's mental development, especially for borderline. I always believed Borderline patients could show themselves indeed be malignly manipulative, egotistical, harsh emotional vampires, but never dared saying this because these people seem troubled enough already -- why hurt them even more? BC actually argues that they showcase similar abnormal behavior in the empathy brain circuit as narcissists(!) and psychopaths(!). (To me that's just wow!) 

I also like Aspies more after reading more about thems. They're basicly just clueless yet often well-meaning people, their intentions aren't bad at all and they hardly even try to hurt a fly. They're entitled to a bit of protection in situation like highschool where they'd be likely candidates for bullying and verbal abuse. Considering their influence on society vs. the zero-negatives, I'd say they're actually worth the trouble.

Felix Perez said...

The "systemizing impulse"  brought to mind an old article from Reason magazine:

"Libertarians are the only group that scored higher on systemizing than on empathizing—and they scored a lot higher. The authors go on to suggest that systemizing is “characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating autism.”

Is Libertarianism just the expression of "Supermorality" derived by brute logic alone?

Felix Perez said...

Another quote from the Reason article:

“Libertarians are high in Openness to Experience and seem to enjoy effortful and thoughtful cognitive tasks. In combination with low levels of emotional reactivity, the highly rational nature of libertarians may lead them to a logical, rather than emotional, system of morality.”

ben_g said...

I found Baron-Cohen's book on Systemazing vs Empathizing (The Essential Difference) interesting but overly simple.. S vs E is no more "essential" to the difference between men and women than other differences likes aggressiveness, competitiveness, etc.

As for "Borderline/Narcissism/Histrionic/etc." disorders it seems to me really arbitrary.. At best, these are just particular expressions of dramatic tendencies, and we'd be better off referring to them that way rather than fluffing up the DSM.  I really like Geoffrey Miller's take on this:

jo said...

so borat wrote this? what the fuck?

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