Recently, I reviewed Simon Baron-Cohen's new book, The Science of Evil, and interviewed him concerning zero empathy, neurological disorders like autism spectrum disorders and personality disorders like narcissism, borderline, and psychopathy. The New York Times interviewed Baron-Cohen this week in a piece titled "From Hitler to Mother Theresa: Six Degrees of Empathy." The article links to a 60 item empathy quotient test online (20 are filler items); the test in the book contains only the 40 empathy questions.
Last year, I wrote about Baron-Cohen's empathy and systemizing tests and how he believes they explain autism spectrum disorders. In the literature that supports his empathy-quotient test, the scores for the autistic subjects seem to disagree with Baron-Cohen's contentions that autism spectrum disorders are zero-empathy disorders. According to Baron-Cohen and Wheelwright, the autistic subjects did not score at zero empathy, but instead lower, at around 20. Even in the test at the end of his new book, the EQ provided does not provide the 0-5 scaling that Baron-Cohen posits in the book. Instead low is from 0-32. In our interview, Baron-Cohen made clear that while he'd labeled ASDs as zero-empathy disorders, not all would actually score 0.
This is muddy water, to put it mildly, and with various people defining empathy differently, it can get even muddier.
I suspect, based on comments I've read, that many in the autism community will question the validity of the questions measuring empathy in this EQ measure, and part of that will be based on the definition. I think this is a fair and important argument to be had, as we work out what it means to be empathetic.
And now, to last year's post on this topic, which also includes systemizing.
We are driven (some of us more than others) to identify, classify, and organize. According to Baron-Cohen, individuals on the spectrum are extreme systemizers (with deficits in empathizing). He explains this theory for the layperson in his 2008 book Autism and Asperger Syndrome (which I reviewed here), known as the empathizing-systemizing theory. This theory is a blend of both his earlier theory of mind and later extreme male brain theory. Baron-Cohen posits that this theory explains more the of the symptoms, behaviors, and differences than do the other modern psychological theories that have been proposed as explanations for autism spectrum conditions (Baron-Cohen prefers conditions to disorder).
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