Zero Degrees of Empathy

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen is part of the team at the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University in the UK:

I discovered that I was almost certainly affected in some way by Asperger when I sat their online Adult Asperger Assessment test. The result was not a formal diagnosis, but did provide an indication that I was borderline Asperger, a discovery that enabled me to make some profound adjustments to both my life and my management style and approach.

I can now – with the benefit of hindsight – see how my lower propensity to empathise has been the source of many of my difficulties in a work context: my lower ability to discern the motives of others for example, to meet their emotional needs or to socialize effectively, especially in relation to organisational politics.

Professor Baron-Cohen finishes Zero Degrees of Empathy by asserting that we have taken empathy for granted and so, to a large extent, have overlooked it. He also goes on to say that empathy is “one of the most valuable resources in our world”. Via empathy we have a resource to resolve conflict, increase community cohesion and dissolve another person’s pain. All of these facets apply very markedly in a commercial/managerial context.

The book specifically looks at human cruelty, but also introduces and studies Asperger syndrome as this is a key area of Baron-Cohen’s expertise. The former refers to “Turning People into Objects”. The “I-You” mode of being is where one is connecting with another person, as a person with thoughts feelings, acknowledging their subjectivity.  The “I” mode of being is where you are treating a person as an object, ignoring their subjectivity of feelings/emotions and so using them for some purpose and focusing largely on oneself. The latter mode of treatment for another person can be extremely devaluing.

When our empathy mode is switched off we are solely in the “I” mode and treating people as just things. Whilst most people are capable of doing this occasionally, those with Asperger do it more often and unintentionally. That does not, of course, prevent misunderstandings and difficulties occurring!

Professor Baron-Cohen then outlines his definition of empathy:

“Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention, and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention”.

Single minded means that we are thinking about only our own minds, our current thoughts, perceptions or needs. “Double-minded” attention means we are keeping in mind someone else’s mind, at the very same time. Consequently, we need to switch empathy on to thinking about others.

Doing this enables the above definition to be extended:

“Empathy becomes our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion”.

To achieve this Baron-Cohen believes that two empathetic stages are needed: recognition and [appropriate] response.

The book then looks at Zero Degrees of Empathy. This means one having no awareness of how one comes across to others, how they interact with them or how they anticipate their feelings or reactions.

Doing this leaves a person doomed to doing their own thing, in their own little bubble, and not only oblivious to other people’s thoughts and feelings, but also to the idea that there might even be other points of view. The consequence of this 100% belief in the rightness of ones’ own ideas and beliefs, and judging anyone who doesn’t share them as wrong or stupid can be hugely limiting if not dangerous.

From an Asperger perspective, I can see why this can be problematic, especially in a business context. It’s not that I don’t believe that other people have worthwhile views; it is just that I don’t automatically think of others and what might be available. It’s unconscious of course, but I can see how it can send a negative message.

As Professor Baron-Cohen goes on to say, having zero degrees of empathy is ultimately a lonely existence, a life at best misunderstood or, at worst, condemned as selfish. It also means less understanding about the impact of your actions or words on another person. As mentioned above, I can certainly say that I have experienced this personally and , looking back, how I have often practiced and demonstrated it in a work context.

The book then identifies three key personality types.

Firstly, “borderline”.  These people have a feeling of emptiness and therefore a lack of a core identity. Life feels like an act, as if they are continuously pretending to be someone else. Because they don’t know who they are, they also find it difficult to figure out other people; they focus on either the good part of another person or not the bad part; they cannot see another person has both good and bad.

Secondly, comes’ the “psychopath”. Here there is a willingness to do whatever it takes to satisfy their desires. There is a need to dominate and a complete detachment from another person’s feelings or even pleasure at seeing them suffer.

The third type is the narcissist which is the profile that I found most interesting and pertinent.

I don’t believe that I am a narcissist, but I do think that, having read this section, there are strong correlations with Asperger syndrome. Reading the section therefore, to be honest, was not entirely easy for me. It is the one that I believe comes closest to the Asperger personality profile.

It starts by describing James and how: “he feels angry with the world. He feels that he has only done good things all his life, and that others have not recognised or reciprocated that goodness. As a result, he feels that he has been badly treated by society”. People don’t call, help or visit him. He is “entitled to friendship just like everyone else, so why do they offer it to others and not to me?”

As Professor Baron-Cohen states, the key word here is “entitled”. James feels he has a right to be treated well, irrespective of how he treats others.  There is no appreciation of the need to earn it.

All James talks about is himself and his needs and desires. He is oblivious to how other people listening to him might feel; their role is to agree with and admire him. He has no idea that his behaviour drives others further away from him.

Relationships here are one way. There is little attempt to make space in the conversation for others or to find out about the other person. They simply lecture and talk about themselves and they decide when to end the conversation which are monologues not dialogues. Other people are exploited for their usefulness.

In a working environment there are so many ways that this issue can manifest itself: demanding support from others while be less pre-disposed either to give initially or reciprocate support and assistance; expecting to be part of a team or “on-board” without fully being a team-player and; forwarded ones’ own view or position without either considering or including those of others.

I know I am not narcissistic – because I DO care about other people – but I have been pre-disposed towards thinking of myself because of my introverted nature and my lower ability to empathise.

Thinking about what colleagues may think or want has been hugely beneficial here: do they need assistance, is there a reason why they may be under pressure and need to support or simply/overtly offering some form of encouragement – acknowledging a job well done for example?

The book then goes on to discuss what for me are the most interesting, advantageous and beneficial aspects of empathy (and the whole book): cognitive and affective empathy. These explain so many of the difficulties that I have encountered and have given me a real insight into a key problem that I have experienced in both my personal and working life.

The “cognitive” element of empathy relates to recognition, whilst the “affective” element relates to response or emotion. To empathize and operate effectively both are required.

Cognitively a person may be unaware that someone is hurting or in need emotionally because they can’t “read” the other person. However, if a person with AS hears about or sees someone being openly/overtly upset however, they will immediately recognise it. It will upset them meaning that they will enquire with the other person what the problem is and what can be done to prevent any upset.  In other words, people with Asperger do care about others, but because they struggle to read them “cognitively” they are perceived of not doing so. This leads to mis-understandings.

I can see this so readily in my own behaviour. If I can demonstrably see that someone is upset I will respond in a VERY sympathetic and empathetic way. However, I have been significantly poor at inferring/deducing that someone is unhappy or unsettled and so an appropriate response is not forthcoming. The most obvious way that this has manifested itself in a work context is via not, at times, fully recognising the emotional needs of subordinates as their manager: what are they feeling, why may they be under pressure, what can I do as their manager to be seen to be in agreement and supportive?

The book then looks at systemizing: identifying patterns that help us to understand how things work and predict the future. With patterns one thing can be played with at a time; they also provide direct access to the truth as predictions are either confirmed as true or false via analysis/objective thinking.

However, for those that systemise fully it means that they can only analyse one variable at a time and the search for predictable patterns comes at a high price: anything unexpected is toxic and can cause enormous stress and anxiety. Routines overcome this because they are expected, whilst change is avoided as it is so difficult.

Another problem for the systemiser is that the truth also becomes the only thing that matters and does so at all costs. When people are involved this becomes very complicated. Other people’s behaviour is judged as rigidly as inanimate objects: the facts are true or false. People with AS may, therefore, become moral “whistle-blowers” and accuse people of dishonesty if there is the slightest deviation from the truth and there is a zero degree of empathy.

However, the world of people is dominated by emotions where behaviour is often unpredictable; how someone feels cannot be predicted with precision. When we empathize it is because we can tolerate an inexact answer of what another person may feel. And the world of feelings is unlawful; laws are not “black and white” or consistent; social groups mean many different perspectives and not just a single view.

Effective empathy therefore involves tracking different points of view and fluctuating emotional states in social interactions at high speed. If you are focused on a systemizing mechanism, you will be less focused on phenomena such as emotions. Other people’s behaviour is beyond comprehension and empathy impossible.

The book then looks at a danger area that follows on from this: if a moral code has been developed through intact affective empathy and systemizing then the desire is to live by the rules and expect others to do the same for reasons of fairness.

I can see only too well how and why this is the case. Like other people with AS, I am often the first to leap to the defence of someone being treated unfairly if it violates my moral system!  All well and good of course – until that moral system is not one that is reciprocated by another person.

In a corporate context this can be a very dangerous position to find ones-self in. I personally have been sacked once for directly infringing another person’s morals even though, with hindsight, I was proved to be right.

I can see now looking back that, had I been able to adopt an empathising position, or perhaps more pertinently, take the other person’s view, it could have prevented my dismissal.

Overall then, I believe that Zero-Degrees of Empathy is a terrific book. It’s short, to the point and contains some great learning points – cognitive-affective empathy, narcissism and Asperger – that can provide the insight and understanding for real personal development.

I have added it to my “must read” directory.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome