BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Evil

Reviewed by Joyce Alexander, RNP (Retired)

Simon Baron-Cohen, author of The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, is a professor of Developmental Psychology in the department of Experimental psychology and psychiatry at the University of Cambridge. He is director of the University’s Autism Research Center and has endless awards for his research and writing.

If you only read one book about empathy, this book should be it! Baron-Cohen explores the definition of empathy, or the lack of it, in humans, to answer his own questions about the Nazi atrocities in Germany before and during World War II. He also, as a scientist, wanted to explore why some people treat other as objects and answer his questions about how a human being can treat another person with utter cruelty and lack of compassion. His definition of empathy is:

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

Empathy … requires not only that you can identify another person’s feelings and thoughts, but that you respond to those with an appropriate emotion.


He explains that lack of empathy can be a fleeting state, in which anger, drugs, alcohol, or distractions dampen our empathy temporarily, or it can be a life-long pattern from which there is no recovery. He goes on to show that there are medical conditions in which both parts of empathy are missing (recognition of another’s feelings as well as responding to those feelings.)

Like any good scientist who studies his subject in a scientific manner, Baron-Cohen actually measures empathy. He and his team devised a Empathy Quotient (EQ) in order to measure empathy on the standard bell curve, where the majority of humans are in the middle. Most people have a reasonable amount of empathy most of the time (both recognizing and responding to the feelings of others), with fewer people having a much greater amount of empathy, and others having a lesser amount of empathy.

When I meet someone with very little empathy, it is as if they lack the very apparatus to look inwards at themselves, as if they lack a reverse periscope that would enable them any vision of themselves.


He defines, for research purposes, empathy into six broad categories. He describes zero empathy as:

Individual has no empathy at all ”¦ at which level some people commit crimes and are violent, but ”¦ fortunately, not all people with zero empathy wish to harm others ”¦ they cannot experience remorse or guilt.

At level six are the hyper-empathetic people that he describes as:

Continually focused on other people’s feelings, and go out of their way to check on these and to be supportive. It is as if their empathy is in a constant state of hyper-arousal, such that other people are never off their radar.


Using both psychology and brain scans of the areas of the brain involved in empathy, Baron-Cohen explains how the various personality disorders, psychopathy he uses that word borderline and narcissism, overlap in empathy or lack of it. Other medical conditions, such as autism, also cause problems with empathy.

He shows that people with classic autism, while not having empathy, do not generally intend to cause harm to anyone. The book also explores the genetic links. as well as the environmental links. that can produce low or lacking empathy in a personality.

Appendix 1 is the Empathy Quotient self test. Appendix 2 is How to Spot Zero Degrees of Empathy (Negative). It discusses borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality, a young person with conduct disorder, and How to Recognize a Narcissist.

This is an excellent book for learning more about ourselves, as well as learning about people with low levels of empathy. I highly recommend this book for both scientific information and for common sense information that is useful day to day in dealing with others in our lives.

The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, on Amazon.com.





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126 Comments on "BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Evil"

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superkid, thanks. My mom was in HR for years and has helped tremendously with advice and the resume. It’s (a) the market, and (b) not hitting the pavement as much as I should because of taking care of my kids and dealing with him. I’ve started wondering, since I’m so certain he’s had access to all of my correspondence, if he hasn’t sabotaged me along the way. Sending emails of “Don’t hire this crazy bitch.” That’s how much my head has been messed with, that I think crazy like that. After all, whenever I had a job he FREAKED. I’ll meet someone else, we won’t have time together, etc. He is self-employed and pretty much sets his own hours. Daytime was playtime.

I knew what and who he was from the very beginning, Dupey. I really did. Speaking in terms of dark energy inside and all around him. I thought that I was so good, so honest and pure after all of the work I’d done on myself, that I was strong enough to “exorcise” it. It didn’t take long for him to strip me of all of my beliefs, so that I didn’t think in those terms anymore.

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” — Usual Suspects

I am almost finished with the grieving process. Seriously.
I am now in firmly in the ‘grounding stage’. Seriously.

I just about have my life back and the control I gave away, all because I trusted someone and loved someone…..

Believe me: this is one lesson I will NEVER FORGET…
If I live through it, that is.

Right: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” But we know he does, don’t we?



Yes, I know the crazyness they can cause and how it interferes with your life.

I am CRAZY with anger at this moment with my spath. But I will go for a walk, calm down, and go play tennis with my friend.


Thanks for this great article, Donna, It covers what is in the book much better and more in depth than my shorter review did, but this IS A GREAT BOOK! It answer so many questions about how empathy (or lack of it) can effect our lives. There is so much research going on about empathy now and the concept which I first came into contact with in this book that empathy can have an “on/off” switch as well as that different people have different LEVELS of empathy (using the Bell Curve to chart it) opens up more ways to look at the psychopaths among us, or just the disordered among us…as well as to look at ourselves.

I had an instance of NO EMPATHY for someone, the day that I told the psychopathic woman I had “taken in” that she had to leave….and she immediately went into a PITY PLOY, telling me how I was betraying her, how I had abused her, how pitiful she was and that she might have cancer and that I had not taken her to a doctor…and on and on, and cried and cried…and I watched her, realizing at the time that I did not feel empathy for her, and wondering if That is how the psychopaths feel when we beg them to stop hurting us. I think now that it must be how they feel, and I realize That just like the civilian Germans that drove the trains to the death camps had turned of their empathy, their compassion and feelings toward their fellow human beings, any of us under the right circumstances can turn off our empathy… but those who have no empathy aren’t able to turn their on.

Wish I could be around in another 100 years to see what science has discovered about the brain by then.

Empathy for everyone = Level 6. If all had Level 6 empathy, we would have a dream world.

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