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Surprising Science

Empathy: The World’s Most Precious Resource

Cambridge University psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen argues that evil should be understood as a lack of empathy—a condition he argues can be measured and is susceptible to education and treatment.  

What’s the Latest Development?

As a scientist seeking to understand random acts of violence, from street brawls to psychopathic killings to genocide, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen has puzzled for decades over what prompts such acts of human cruelty. He has decided that evil is not good enough. According to Baron-Cohen, evil is indistinguishable from simply doing something bad and that is a poor way to understand what separates not paying a parking ticket from incidences of mass genocide. So instead of associating evil with doing bad things, we should instead associate it with a lack of empathy. By shifting the focus to empathy, we can seek to correct what seems to be lacking in the behavior of the worst among us. 

What’s the Big Idea?

Baron-Cohen defines empathy in two parts—as the drive to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings, and the drive to respond appropriately to those thoughts and feelings. It is also, he says, one of the most valuable resources in our world—one which is currently woefully underused. “We all have degrees of empathy…but perhaps we are not using it to its full potential,” he said after delivering a lecture in London. The erosion of empathy is an important global issue that affects the health of communities, be they small ones like families, or big ones like nations.


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