I recently read Simon Baron-Cohen’s The Science of Evil, On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty*. Baron-Cohen was interested in how some human beings come to commit terrible acts against others. He wanted to uncover a scientific (objective), rather than a moral (subjective), explanation for this. The result is an interesting psychological discussion of empathy.

According to Baron-Cohen, there are two kinds of empathy. Affective Empathy is the emotional ability to sense feelings in yourself and others. Cognitive Empathy is the intellectual ability to understand what another person’s reaction might be.

All empathy occurs along a spectrum, or range. Everyone has varying degrees of both affective and cognitive empathy. Psychopaths, for example, have higher cognitive empathy and lower affective empathy. They are capable of understanding how others would react, and using that to manipulate and terrorize them. They do not experience physical discomfort at the consequences of their behavior, feelings that would limit those actions.

People with autism, by comparison, have the opposite––higher affective empathy and lower cognitive empathy. They are capable sensing emotions and feeling empathy, but have difficulty understanding the social rules that prevent them from hurting others. The harm they may cause is unintentional. (Autism is Baron-Cohen’s primary study area––he has done much research and written several books on it).

There are also general differences in empathy between women and men. Males tend to have lower empathy and women tend to have higher empathy. This is likely related to biological socialization over thousands of years. Men have killed large animals and gone to war. Women have tended the children and families. (I’ve ordered a copy of Baron-Cohen’s book on this subject, The Essential Difference. Stay tuned for more info.)

I am a sensitive person. I generally know what a person is feeling when they walk into the room. Of course, I took the Empathy Quotient Questionnaire included in the book to see where I might be on the spectrum. It turns out I am on the upper end of the Very High range, very close to Maximum. Sometimes this level of empathy can be disabling. I shudder when I hit a butterfly with my car. I am seen as a good listener, and am constantly being sought out by people who want to unload, which is is exhausting. Graphic scenes in the news haunt me for weeks, months, even years––I have learned to just not look at them.

What Baron-Cohen’s book helped me to understand is that empathy is not just one thing. Empathy takes multiple neurologic pathways and each path has multiple expressions. Some of it is genetic and some of it is learned. I want to be more aware of this in my interactions with friends and family. We’re not all on the same page! I also need to care for Me, and somehow allow things to flow by instead of absorbing them into my system.


*Basic Books, 2011.