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November 22, 2012
Empathy

Maria Konnikova, also at Aeon.

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Oxford and famous for his work on autism, distinguishes between two elements of empathy. There is affective empathy, the emotional part. And there is cognitive empathy, or the ability to think oneself into another person’s mind. Based on having an effective theory of mind, this cognitive empathy provides an important counterbalance to the emotional. But must the two always go together? Can we imagine an emotionless, purely cognitive, empathy?

The question is not a new one. In their 1963 study of empathy and birth order, the psychologists Ezra Stotland and Robert Dunn distinguished the ‘logical’ and the ‘emotional’ part of empathising with similar and dissimilar others. They understood the first as an exercise in cognitive perspective-taking, and the latter as an instance of non-rational emotional contagion. More recently, Baron-Cohen has described how individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder might not be able to understand or mentalise, yet some are fully capable of empathising (in the emotional sense) once someone’s affective state is made apparent to them — a sign, it seems, that the two elements are somewhat independent.

Physiological studies seem to support this, too. In 2009, a team of psychologists from the University of Haifa found that patients with ventromedial prefrontal damage showed consistent selective deficits in cognitive empathy and theory of mind — that is the cognitive aspects of empathy — while their emotional empathy and emotional recognition ability remained intact. Conversely, patients with lesions in the inferior frontal gyrus of the brain demonstrated remarkable deficits in emotional empathy and the recognition of emotion — but their cognitive empathy remained on a par with healthy controls. Are both of these groups, then, empathetic in their own way — the one emotionally, and the other, cognitively so?
Surely the capacity for manipulation depends on cognitive empathy; a better cognitive empath would be better at thinking themselves into the minds of those they wish to manipulate, to see the motivations, the buttons and levers. Psychopaths are famously manipulative: so is it really both types of empathy their brains are deficient in?

Update 27/01/13: I was unsurprised to discover Kevin Dutton argues precisely this in Chapter 4 of The Wisdom of Psychopaths.


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