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On Empathy and Autism and Criticism 
13th-Sep-2011 05:48 pm
Dr Simon Baron-Cohen wrote a book. Its title is “Zero Degrees of Empathy”, or else “The Science of Evil”, depending on where you buy it. The general consensus is that the correct title is the former, the latter being typical hyperbole for the American market. This is Dr Baron-Cohen's view, if nothing else.

Lots of people have reviewed this book, including these reviews by Erudito and Kim Wombles.

It inspired a whole new blog, Autism and Empathy, as a rebuttal.

And the aforementioned Kim Wombles interviewed Dr Baron-Cohen, and directed him to Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg's [Autism and Empathy site, asking for his response to her work. He, out of all the essays, research and anecdotes on that site, selected her] critique of his Empathising/Systematising theory (which is one of the foundations upon which Baron-Cohen's theory is based) [at the expense of everything else, including more recent work]. [ED: corrected details, thanks to Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg in comments on Livejournal.]

And Dr Baron-Cohen wrote a long and considered reply.

There are lots of things to say about all this, and I'm not sure I'm in a space where I can sort out and unthread the issues sufficiently to do them justice.

Some things I will say, though:

First, I think Baron-Cohen's analysis of Cognitive and Affective Empathy, while better than having one fungible "Empathy" quality, still fails to capture the whole picture. (And I think he has taken a term and jargonised what was already a specialist term.)

My model of Empathy is that there are three aspects: Cognitive (the ability to ken another's emotional state), Demonstrative (the instinctual ability to produce the appropriate or “correct” display or response), and Affect ... and this last I have to elaborate on my choice of terminology.

Affect is used in psychology to refer to emotion, but there does not usually seem to be disambiguation between the emotion as experienced, and the emotion as displayed. Terms like “Blunted” or “Labile” Affect refer to display, which may (especially for Blunted Affect) be at odds with experienced emotion. The term Affect alone, though, refers to experienced emotions as opposed to cognition or conation. If we have to invent the terminology anyway, I'm going to use Affect to the personal experience of emotion (or, in this context, empathy), and Demonstration to describe the presentation of that emotion... Blunted Affect in this model is an issue with Demonstration, as might be some types of Labile Affect where someone finds themselves crying or laughing even though they are not sad or happy. (Of course, where the lability lies in the person actually feeling inappropriately sad or happy with no reason, that goes to Affect in my model.)

Confused yet?

OK, so we've got three aspects to Empathy: Cognitive, Affective, and Demonstrative. Or: Input, Processing, and Output.

First, one has to be able to interpret the signals coming from others, in order to determine what their internal state is. Most people don't think about this, it just happens. They are known to get it wrong, of course they are. Not even NTs are mindreaders any more than Autists are... but from our point of view, it may as well be the same thing at times. (For those "I don't always know what people are feeling either..." objections, that doesn't necessarily mean that you may as well be Autistic, or that it's proof that we're complaining about a non-problem. Most people have moments when they get it wrong. We have moments when we get it right, and it's usually the result of some conscious cognitive effort to do so. NTs see "He's happy", we see "his lips are in a smile, the corners of his eyes are crinkled, and he's not gritting his teeth, so he's probably in a good mood." NTs see "he's pretending to be happy", we see "he's smiling, but his forehead's furrowed and he's gritting his teeth. He might be happy, he might not be. Do I act as if I think he is happy, or as if he is not? What if I guess wrong?")

Then there's the processing: with the knowledge of how the other person is feeling, how does that make you feel? For Autists, after much discussion around the traps, the answer seems to be that we drown in emotion and empathy. That we feel so strongly that it overwhelms us. That may be where alexithymia starts: we feel so much that we can't get enough distance from our own feelings to be able to sort out what is what, to learn to distinguish one feeling from another. At any rate, we tend to feel strongly, and not just as a metaphor. Watching Nation's Funniest Fatal Spine Injuries Home Videos is a physically painful experience. I feel an echo in my gut of every groin shot and face plant. It causes me actual somatic discomfort to watch it, not just distaste. Some of the stereotypical Aspie desire for Fairness and Justice is because hearing about unfairness and injustice causes a similar somatic response. We are literally pained by unfairness.

Lastly, some of that internal state has to get out in such a way so that other people can read it. Autists tend to do badly at this, as well. We don't know how to comfort people who are sad. Slapping backs and yelling in celebration is awkward at best; threatening, disturbing and scary at worst. Our displays of emotion are not what always what others would expect, either because we don't perceive the emotional situation ("I didn't know you were upset"), because our cognition of the situation leads us to different emotional conclusions ("but that's a good thing, isn't it?"), or because we don't know how to react ‘properly’ ("um... there, there? Um...").

Baron-Cohen, in his reply to Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, makes it clear that he disambiguates between Cognition and Demonstration, even if he conflates Affect and Demonstration. And he goes out of his way to point out what I've been saying for a while: that Autists and Psychopaths are opposites of each other.

Autists, as I describe above, are bad at Cognitive and Demonstrative Empathy -- indeed, it's one of the defining symptoms. And yet we care deeply, even if we have to ask what others take for read, or we react in strange ways. Our Affective Empathy is high. Sometimes cripplingly so.

Psychopaths, on the other hand, are notoriously charming and manipulative. That's one of their defining characteristics. They just don't care. They don't have Affective Empathy, which is why they are able to use their Cognitive and Demonstrative Empathetic skills to manipulate those around them for their amusement or profit.

And yet, the very concept of Baron-Cohen's book is to conflate the two in the public mind. It doesn't matter whether one is Autistic or Psychopathic, we are both subclasses of "Zero Degrees of Empathy", we are both damned by our characteristic deficits, and only slightly redeemed by our strength. What people take away from his book is not that Autists and Psychopaths are completely different from each other, but that we are fundamentally alike. Psychopaths are like Autists, but they're potentially dangerous. Autists are like Psychopaths, but we're the good kind. (It also, in its attribution of Zero Empathy to ‘evil’, and of Zero Empathy to Psychopaths, skips over those cases where completely neurotypical people have committed evil acts because they were able to selectively turn off their Empathy, to redefine their victims as not being of a category worthy of empathy, be they Jews, or Gay, or Poor, or Rich, or foreign, or gullible, or stupid, or, or, or... But these people were deeply empathic otherwise. Gestapo officers, as the cliché goes, loved their children. Maybe he does go into this. I haven't got a copy of his book to check.)

Even if he had used his two-variable analysis of Empathy (which, as I describe above, I already think is simplistic and hides fundamental aspects which are important for meaningful analysis), you would see a graph, not a line, where NTs are grouped in the middle (a bell curve which looks like a solid bell, not just a cross section), Autists clustered at top left (with low cognition and high affect), and Psychopaths diametrically opposite at bottom right with high cognition but low affect.

As it is, Dr Baron-Cohen's 0–6 scale is not just a gross over-simplification of a complicated collection of characteristics, it's verging on an outright lie in the way it folds reality to fit an arbitrary scale. It takes a vector (z) and extracts only the absolute scalar (|z|), and draws the conclusions from that. It's technically correct as far as it goes, but so much information is abstracted away that you can't extrapolate unless you know the rest of the story left out: it's a way of describing one part of the picture, but you can't recreate the original from the abstraction, even roughly.

And I have a problem with his data sources. He claims that his tests – such as the EQ test, and the EQ/SQ ratio – are good at distinguishing Autists from NTs. And this may well be true. But I wonder if Dr Baron-Cohen is measuring what he thinks he is measuring.

For a start, they are all full of false dichotomies, excluded middles, begged questions, and leading assumptions.

In the EQ test there are questions such as “7) Friendships and relationships are just too difficult, so I tend not to bother with them.” What if friendships and relationships are overloadingly difficult, but I make the effort anyway? Do I get marked as being more Empathic if I put myself through agonies of social interaction because I want to make the effort? Do I get marked thereby as just as Empathetic as someone who doesn't find it difficult at all?

10) When I was a child, I enjoyed cutting up worms to see what would happen.” Again, a false assumption. What if I didn't enjoy it at all, but cut worms up anyway out of a sense of dedication to find out the answer? What if my need to know was more important than my dislike of causing injury to an animal? What if I were a psychopath, and didn't do it for enjoyment, but because I was just bored? (For the record, I never cut up worms at all if I could help it, and still to this day feel a blow in the gut if I accidentally step on a snail.)

As for “1) I can easily tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation.” That's a complete logic failure right there: If I can't tell how good I am, how can I possibly answer? What he means is “I think that I can easily tell...”, but the way the question is phrased will stop Autists up short: I can sometimes tell, but by definition I don't know when I have failed to, so I can't answer the question as asked: maybe I'm really good at it and get it right every time, maybe I get it wrong every other conversation, I don't know – I can't know.

Then there are the “People often/sometimes tell me...” questions. What if I don't interact with people: how could they tell me anything? What if they're telling me but I haven't made the connection? What if everyone is being too subtle? Or too polite to bring it up? What if they just bitch about me behind my back? Do people not tell me because it's not true, or because they're just not telling me? What's it's really asking is “I think that people think that I...”. Again, the way it's phrased will cause literal minded Autists (myself included) to have to stop and second-guess the author: If I were to answer that people don't tell me that I'm too forceful in expressing my opinions (because they don't dare to, or they are too polite to, or just can't be bothered, or whatever reason), does that put me in the same category for that question as people who can answer that people don't tell them that, because people don't think that of them?

The very questions in a test designed to test how good one is at reading minds demands that we read minds, not only those around us, but we have to read the author's mind as well, just to figure out what the questions mean.

Maybe the low scores aren't indicative of a characteristic set of behaviours, as much as they indicate that it's a test, which Autists tend to fail.

Other people have made similar critiques of his Aspie Quotient test, as featured in Wired. “I would rather go to the theater than to a museum.” ... is the museum crowded and chaotic and noisy? Is the play one in which I'm interested? Why do I have to chose? I want to do both!

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg also made an extensive criticism of Baron-Cohen's Empathy Quotient Test (part one, two, three, and conclusion), but this was almost certainly too recent for Baron-Cohen to respond to.

She points out a lot of the things which annoy me about it, and other things besides.

For the record, here are my EQSQ results:
September 11, 2011

Respondent Average EQ Average SQ Brain Type
Males 39.0 61.2 Systemizing
Females 48.0 51.7 Empathizing
Your Score 21 109 Extreme Systemizing

What does your score mean?

Generally, the higher the score the greater your natural ability for that trait. However, the EQ test has 40 questions compared to 75 in the SQ test. As a result, although the unprocessed quotients may be used for comparing each trait ability between individuals, the absolute scores do not tell an individual if he or she has a greater tendency to empathize or systemize. A calculation taking into account the quantity of questions in each test is used to determine a person's brain type along the following continuum:

Extreme Empathizing (Extreme E)
Empathizing (E)
Balanced (B)
Systemizing (S)
Extreme Systemizing (Extreme S)
Brain Types of Experimental Control Groups
Respondent Extreme E E Balanced S Extreme S
Males 0% 17% 31% 46% 6%
Females 7% 47% 32% 14% 0%

The important factor to consider is not your absolute score, but the difference between the two. This indicates whether you have more natural ability as an Empathizer or a Systemizer. If your scores are about the same for your EQ and SQ, then you have well balanced empathizing-systemizing capabilities.

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15th-Sep-2011 11:53 am (UTC)
Hello. I read your article because dr_jon posted a link to this on Google+ and I found myself being blown away by the fire-hose of total obviousness. I re-jargonized your input/processing/output terms a little, to recognition/feeling/expression to make it more understandable to myself.
15th-Sep-2011 12:50 pm (UTC)
Anyway, I re-shared the link over there, but I despair of getting any further conversation on the topic there, so figured I'd better pop my head in over here, and say hello to the author (that's you).

I think I'm mostly interested in this topic because of my kids (eldest now 5). I've always had a vague sense that "they are wrong about EQ" but it becomes so much more upsetting when well meaning people start talking about the importance of developing your children's emotional intelligence. I just want to shake them by the ears and say: "Don't you know that intelligence has a very large innate component? It's no less true of emotional intelligence!" I've long suspected that EQ is a measure of your ability to manipulate, rather than to feel. And it makes me thoroughly cringe when some reputable psychologist suggests that emotional intelligence has anything to do with a child's emotional health and development.

I also feel like I need to be doing more to understand my 5yo. He is intensely emotional, has a very strong sense of justice and absolutely no sense of power (or so it seems). We also have food intolerances, which I am very happy to have discovered, since when we get the diet wrong, my 5yo gets behavioral symptoms, including losing his ability to relate.

I look forward to hearing from you at some point. I don't recall whether I still get email notifications for LJ (haven't used it in the last year or so), but will look into that now.
16th-Sep-2011 02:24 am (UTC)
I should make it plain that I'm not a doctor of any sort, nor do I play one on TV.

Are you worried about your son because you think he may be autistic? In which case, I would point out that there are other symptoms beyond the emotional, and in most places there are places where children can be tested for that sort of thing. Especially as you appear to be Australian: if you have concerns, take them to your child's teacher, and they can arrange testing.

In any case, I'm not an expert on child diagnosis, especially as the diagnosis did not exist when I was a child. Nor do I know your child, and so I really can't make any informed comment on his case.

Some kids are just more emotional than others, and my experience is that children usually have a very strong sense of justice, especially when they feel that they are the ones being hard done by (ie., whenever they have to do something they don't want to). Autism requires other symptoms; sensory integration problems especially, and language oddities, either language delay, or in the case of Asperger's, other strangenesses such as odd prosidy, volume control issues, or simply a vocabulary at odds with what you would expect for the age.

The food intolerances are another thing again. Most people who talk about this sort of thing in relation to autism talk about a sensitivity to gluten. (I don't think I've noticed any such problems myself.) Preservatives and particular common colourings are more associated with ADHD.

I'm happy to answer questions about my own experience or theories, just so long as you remember that I'm not authoritative on any subjects other than my own experiences, and, arguably, historical linguistics.
16th-Sep-2011 05:21 am (UTC)
Historical linguistics sounds like such a safe field. Professional or personal interest? Does that mean that you speak Latin, Welsh and an Aust Aboriginal language. Or are you more the sort to work with documents, translating the Rosetta Stone (spelling?) and that sort of thing?

Very sensible of you to start by checking that the odd stranger isn't a loony. Mention of kids is more by way of background. I assume that "extreme systemizing" means you are very logical? And it is logical to suppose that the person who spends more than half their comment talking about kids, wants to talk about kids. Kids are a fascinating topic for me, but not the reason why your article resonated so strongly. If anything, I was hoping you were a researcher in Psychology, because that would mean that the field was seeing some significant improvements in the understanding of empathy.

On the topic of brain types, I'm probably an inductive reasoner. I cope with standard logical deduction too, but it's more work and less fun. Apologies if I just seem to be all over the place at this point.
16th-Sep-2011 05:25 am (UTC)
I've just friended you, because the vast majority of my LJ (out of date as it is) is friends locked.
16th-Sep-2011 05:46 am (UTC)
Personal interest. I only wish I could get paid for it (Aspies dream of being paid for our perseverations...)

I have issues with spoken language due to Auditory Processing Deficit, so it's not so much that I speak them, but I can get by with texts in Old and Middle English, Latin, French and Old, Middle and Modern Irish. I have a toe in the water of Norwegian and Italian (but they don't amount to anything as yet, just a few words here and there), and I also have an interest in writing systems, so I can sound out Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Runic and Ogham, even if I can't always make sense of the underlying language. My years of Japanese in high school were a waste, though.

Extreme Systematising is Baron-Cohen's characterisation. It merely means, as I read it, that I operate on a logical basis more than an emotional one, or that systems and objects make more sense to me than do people.

I am not a researcher in anything beside onomastics, and that's more of a hobby.

I am afraid that the most promising commentary on the subject of Empathy is from those people who are most commonly stereotyped as not having any. Maybe it's because we can't take it for granted, and have to analyse the phenomenon in order to figure out where (or if) we have trouble with it. Epistemological self-defence, if you will.

There has been grumblings against Baron-Cohen for a while in the Autism community: his Extreme Male Brain theory of autism has done, as far as we can tell, great damage to female autists and Aspies, who present differently from male autists, and have great difficulty in gaining diagnosis, let alone assistance. But this latest book, where, as I describe above, he conflates autism with psychopathy, has gelled criticism, as we can see that his theories are becoming more and more separated from our experience, and we worry that his misconceptions of empathy are likely to lead research off down a blind alley unless the problems underlying his analysis are addressed.
16th-Sep-2011 09:41 am (UTC)
Psychology was my undergrad major. Once both kids are at school I'll be heading back to work and/or Uni. If I go back to school, I'd like it to be for something which will up my value in the corporate sector. But part of me still imagines myself wandering the corridors of the Melb Uni Psych Dept and being swept away by some grand passion of a research project. I suppose I should actually look up who is there and what they are working on. Any names come to mind?

Extreme Male Brain theory doesn't sound very politically correct to say the least.

I'm involved with a "user group" (not the right term) to do with food intolerances. The level of information which is available through these sorts of groups is mind-blowing. Sure, a lot of it is highly specific and extreme, but the knowledge available there really makes a mockery of the formal research. By collating information from the community-of-interest, Sue Dengate has gathered a massive body of knowledge on food intolerance symptoms. She has cataloged/described hundreds of physical and behavioral symptoms of food intolerance. She provides this list in conjunction with a diagnostic method, to help people understand their own conditions. The clinical scientists in the field work the food-chemical-list end, defining what foods contain salicylates and amines and in what quantities. These researchers won't go beyond a precious few vague statements about how "some people experience behavioral symptoms."

I wonder if anyone has studied the interactions between formal researchers and communities of interest? Now THAT would be worth studying ;)
21st-Sep-2011 10:10 pm (UTC) - Just a small correction

Great post!

Just a small clarification. Kim didn't direct Simon to my E-S critique. She asked whether he would like to write a response to the work I'm doing on the Autism and Empathy website. He chose my piece on the E-S theory. In the interest of accuracy, would you make the correction?

21st-Sep-2011 11:48 pm (UTC) - Re: Just a small correction
That detail wasn't really clear. I am happy to make the correction, and honoured that you like my thoughts.
10th-Aug-2013 09:15 am (UTC)
Hi, I've mentioned you in a blog post here.
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