Sunday, March 3, 2013

Of Empathy

Trigger Warnings: Aversive therapy, murder, very disturbing imagery in linked source video
   Throughout my self diagnosis journey, I have repeatedly encountered Prof. Simon Baron-Cohen and the Cambridge Autism Research Centre's (ARC)diagnostic tests and studies.  Many Autistics have a great deal of criticism of their work.  I found some of their tests myself to be rather inconclusive, flawed or just flat out bizarre.  Particularly their AQ test and CAM face reading test.

  The first link on their page takes you to a TEDx talk that Prof Baron-Cohen gave to British Parliament that was published on YouTube on 9/12/2012.  Entitled "The Erosion of Empathy" It instantly grabbed my attention.

   Autism is not the primary topic of the presentation, though he does make mention of it.  He discusses his beliefs on the causes of human cruelty and the seeming increase of it in society recently.  To summarize, he argues that the Good vs Evil paradigm is not scientific and therefore not valid.  He presents that human empathy is scientifically quantifiable and can be measured.  He says that social factors, genetic factors, and environmental factors can mitigate human empathy, leading to increased cruelty.

   He breaks down empathy into two components (1:33 of video).

Cognitive Empathy:  The ability to imagine someone elses thoughts and feelings (Theory of Mind)
Affective Empathy:  The drive to respond to Cognitive Empathy with an appropriate response.

   At 2:20 he presents us with his empathy "Bell Curve".  This is where I first started to question this talk.  It is a remarkably clean graph with perfect distribution in relation to empathy and population .  He rates empathy level between 0 and 6.  0 being low empathy and and 6 being high empathy.  The curve perfectly peaks at 3 empathy, where the median and mean both perfectly lie, snuggled together.

   Is empathy a statistic?  How does he rate an individuals empathy between 0 and 6?  With his AQ-10 test?  Why a scale of 0 to 6?  Should Wizards of the Coast include empathy as a rollable stat in the next edition of Advanced Dungeon & Dragons?  My Autistic halfling monk has 14 strength, 15 dexterity, 11 intelligence and 5 empathy.  I hope the DM gives me a +5 empathy enchanted ring so he behaves like a neurotypical in front of the King.  Sound ridiculous?  It should.  Role Playing games are fun, but real life does not even come close to functioning like one.

   At 3:00 the discussion of the "erosion of empathy" begins.  The first mitigating factor Prof Baron-Cohen presents is authority.  He says that an authority figure commanding or reassuring a subordinate tasked with doing something harmful to another human can mitigate the empathy that person feels.

   I find a sad irony in this, since ABA treatments designed to normalize Autistics that are endorsed by leading charities in the US (Autism Speaks) use aversives disturbingly similar to the electric shock example he uses.  Perhaps, since he is a leading global autism researcher, Prof Baron-Cohen can make presentations to these organizations and practitoners explaining to them that they are eroding their own empathy and the empathy of the human race in general with the treatments they use to force normalization on Autistic people that they judge as having little to no empathy.

    I also wonder, did the participants that delivered the shock not experience the empathy?  Or did they disregard it out of fear of the authority and the consequences or disobeying.  Were they not aware that it was morally incorrect to deliver the shock?  I believe that it is an erosion of courage, not an erosion of empathy that lead the participants to deliver the shock.
   He presents the second and third mitigating factors of empathy as Ideology and In Group-Out Group relations.  I believe that these two factors he has seperated are really the same factor.  For his ideology example he uses Al-qaeda and the 9/11 terror attacks and projects that the terrorists believed that their ideology was morally correct, therefore able to carry out their murders with a clean conscious.

   For In-Group-Out Group relations, he tells us of Rwandan ethnic cleansing.  One groups leadership spread propaganda against the minority, equating them as sub-human and therefore able to carry out the cleansing.  Very similar to the Holocaust.

   I say that this is the same factor because an ideology often carries with it the belief that those that don't share the ideology are the enemy and morally perverse.  The ideologists are the "In-Group" and the target is the "Out-Group".  Ideologists often use religious texts as their propaganda to excuse hate and death to the "Out-Group".

  I do agree with Prof. Baron-Cohen here.  Fanatical ideology and media propaganda can and do very much erode human empathy by portraying a group as sub human and morally lacking, suggesting that they are not worthy of empathy, or even worse, teaching that it actually good to kill or marginalize that group.  Empathy towards family and those in the "In-Group" would actually promote the abhorrent acts against the "Out-Group".  The actors operating on the belief that they are saving or defending the superior however endangered "In-Group".

   From 4:34, Prof Baron-Cohen explains the acts of serial killers and presents a comparison of psychopathy to autism.  He returns to the two components of empathy that started the talk.  He says that serial killers possess the "cognitive empathy" to understand, communicate with and seduce victims, but they lack "affective empathy".  They just don't care.  He presents Autistics as a polar opposite, saying that his studies conclude that Autistics lack the cognitive side of empathy, but when an emotion or experience of another is spelled out clearly (he used a piano lid crushing someones fingers as an example), Autistics display an abundance of "affective empathy".

   I am glad to see Prof. Baron-Cohen present to the legislature of one of the world's most powerful democracies that he has scientific proof that Autistics are not prone to kill.  He helps greatly in that regard.

   However his statistical quantification of a human emotion in an attempt to predict and explain behavior, and his labeling of empathy do no favors to Autistics.  Especially the term "cognitive empathy".  It is true that most Autistics do struggle to instinctively perceive non verbal cues.  However is this failure to understand really empathy?  A lack of humanity?  A lack of caring? It is not!  It is a struggle to understand a physical language.  A language that in many cases may never be natural, but can be learned in many cases.

  When an expert such as Prof. Baron-Cohen uses a term such as "cognitive empathy" he does not realize, how by his own theories he is creating real danger for Autistic people in the world.  Those who seek to keep Autistics as the "Out-Group" will make sure the statement "People with autism lack cognitive empathy" will be seen as "People with AUTISM LACK cognitive EMPATHY "in the public conversation.

   It would be positive if we called "affective empathy" what it is, which is simply "empathy", and identified "cognitive empathy" as the ability to recognize the emotional state of others based on non verbal cues.  Society should recognize that the lack of ability to read this language instinctively based on neurotype is not a personal failing, and give support to Autistics to help with that so they can exist in a 99% neurotypical world.   Society should realize that Autistic people do in fact have empathy and care about their fellow man and their communities as much as anyone,  even though those communities don't often care back.

   I think Prof. Baron-Cohen has done a lot of work that in the annals of scientific history will be seen as steps in the correct direction.  However he is trying to wrap all of his findings in a box, and do so now.  There is much more about the human brain and autism to learn than has been learned.  To turn emotional human behavior into a mathematical science with perfect shaped bell curves, graphs and even population distribution with predictable mitigating factors is a long way off, if ever possible.  His talk does not discuss the factors of free will and personal desire at all.
  Finally, do Autistics even lack "cognitive empathy"?  TheAnMish posted this video on her video blog where she discusses her experiences giving and receiving "cognitive empathy" with fellow Autistics on different levels of the spectrum.  She suggests that Autistics experience "cognitive empathy" with each other because they identify each others physical language. 

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