7. Empathy Erosion

Simon Baron-Cohen (1958-present)

Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge University

He wrote a book called “The Science of Evil”.

Baron-Cohen recast this traditional concept of ‘personality disorders’ as examples of a permanent absence of empathy. He explored human cruelty and attempted to redefine evil in terms of empathy or the lack thereof. Looking at Nazi doctors and how seemingly ordinary people ended up doing horrendously destructive acts, he wondered how people could be so cruel to each other.

He hypothesized the reason for cruelty is not because people are evil, but because of empathy erosion.

Zero degrees of empathy

Baron-Cohen posited that empathy is a spectrum and we all lie somewhere on that empathy spectrum (from high to low). People who are said to be evil are extreme in this spectrum, even to what he termed as “zero degrees of empathy”. What does zero degrees of empathy look like? What does it mean to have no empathy?

Law of empathy

Most of us are bound by empathy – It is seen by many as a fundamental capacity to be human. Yet, what is empathy? Empathy has been defined as “an affective response more appropriate to someone else’s situation than to one’s own” (Hoffman, 1987, p. 48). It is the ability to put oneself into another’s shoes; to feel the pain and experiences of others.

Unconsciously, most of us are bound by empathy and we develop emotions that are pro-social and community oriented. For instance this can include a sense of guilt and shame when we harm others. Empathy is a foundation of conscience and it helps us strive to “do unto others, as you wish them do unto you”. It helps us to develop conscience and helps people create a bond with others that moves beyond simple needs.


“Empathy occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention” (Baron-Cohen, 2011, pp. 15-16). When empathy is turned off, we think only about our own interests and will and simply cannot experience what another is experiencing. Attention is like a spotlight; In this state of one-sidedness, other person’s thoughts and feelings no longer exist and they become an object.

“Zero degrees of empathy means you have no awareness of how you come across to others, how to interact with others, or how to anticipate their feelings or reactions.” (p. 43). Such people liveunder single perspective and cannot recognize others perspectives.

The origin of psychopathy: Causes

There are different schools of thought:

  • Genetic predisposition (they are born and not made).
  • Environmental factors such as bad parenting and childhood abuse
  • Combination of both; genetics create susceptibility, but must be activated.

Researchers are still debating the cause, as this is not consistent.

Neurobiological base of psychopathy

Psychopaths’ brains are wired differently. Abnormality occurs within the empathy circuitry in the frontal lobes (Baron-Cohen, p. 82). Amygdala is crucial in processing emotions. It is involved in the response to fearful and sad facial expressions. Amygdala dysfunction is one of the core neural systems implicated in the pathology of psychopathy. This region of brain is not active. Low amygdala reaction means one is incapable of feeling someone’s emotional pain (they themselves can’t even feel themselves).


One reason they have targets is they have no emotions or creativity and must derive that from others. Smell the blood: They sniff our vulnerabilities and susceptibility to their seduction. Fundamentally, we all want validation, acceptance and love. They know that we are driven by emotions and have these needs. So, technically everyone is a potential target. But they target those who are empathic and caring, those who are decent and honest. They also target those who have a tendency to seek for approval and please others.

Are you vulnerable to manipulation?

What are your buttons? What buttons do manipulators push to pressure you?

There are seven areas of vulnerability

Button No 1: Do you have the disease to please -people pleasing habits and mindsets

Button No 2: Addicted for approval and acceptance of others

Button No 3: You have ‘emotophobia”- fear of negative emotions

Button No 4: Lack of assertiveness and an inability to say no

Button No 5: The vanishing self – blurry sense of their own identity, where they begin and end, whose needs they feel and fill and what values are central to their core.

Button No 6: Low self-reliance – distrust of your own judgment and reactions, resulting in an impairment of self-direction. Ability to rely on judgment is impaired.

Button No 7: External locus of control -Locus of Control is a psychological phrase that refers to how and where you attribute the cause of the things that happen, or fail to happen to you. Perceive that things which happen to them in life are more under the control of others and of factors outside of themselves than under their own control.

From ““Who’s Pulling Your Strings?: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life by Harriet B. Braiker

Exploiting human trust (empathy)

These hungry carnivores sink their claws into their prey through innate human traits of empathy and then exploit our trusting nature. Most people relate to others in dialogue, giving a space for another’s perspective to enter in the interaction. Psychopaths on the other hand, not abiding by empathy, live in solipsism and operate in a monologue. While victims are trying to understand their perspective, these emotional vampires move quickly to direct a narrative, giving no chance for their targets to participate in the unfolding story as a co-creator. Through being nitpicky and accusative, they often make victims back off from asserting their needs and make them walk on eggshells.

Cold empathy (their predation): Mirroring

Researchers are hypothesizing that they don’t lack empathy but they have a switch to turn it on and off. By default, it seems to be off. They have no affective or emotional empathy. Although they don’t have empathy, they can cognitively understand other’s emotions in a reflective manner. They study human behavior and can simulate emotions to manipulate others. This cognitive understanding of emotions are described as ‘cold empathy’; calculative and detached. They are often very intelligent in a superficial way. If you can know what makes somebody tick, but you don’t care about someone’s feeling and can’t feel their emotional pain, then you have a greater advantage for manipulating and hurting them. At a conceptual level, psychopaths understand it. But, it is not the same as feeling.

Language as tool

Upon their cognitive intelligence (cold empathy), they use language to weave a fantasy and dupe another into a web of deception. Without having vital emotional understanding, they mimic experiences they can’t really understand through simulating emotions and parroting words and gestures that others use.

They don’t feel what they say and words are cheap and are just used to manipulate others. Some of them perfect this capacity through lifelong practice, until they become more like an efficient machine to extract what they want. All the words sound right on the surface, but lack true emotions.

Empathy trap

Those with empathy assume the other has a similar orientation and they fill in the blanks by projecting good attributes and interpreting words of those who lack feeling for others according to how they themselves use language. As the relationship unfolds beyond the initial stage, the differences eventually begin to emerge and the shallow consciousness behind these beautiful words starts to unravel.

Naivety and goodness; It doesn’t cross our mind that there are people who have these deviant qualities like that. We are kind and trusting others.

Reverse projection

Psychopaths weave a convincing picture of themselves by wearing a mask, personality created by mimicking our emotions and mirroring our personality (our likes and wishes). They fool and seduce us with that mask and make us fall for it.

During devaluation and discard, they project their bad attributes and we excuse them by projecting virtues they don’t have (our moral landscape onto someone who is narcissistic or psychopathic).

Protect ourselves

Compromising authenticity to get conditioned love. We don’t have to sacrifice that authenticity and we can stay. One will find one’s own community that shares ones own core values.

Sign of abuse/manipulation

Knowing the red flags – feelings that go along with it. Pay attention to our own feelings. Confusion and fear, these feelings are not often present in healthy relationships. Something is off. Slow a relationship down, take a step back to see what is really going on. Emotionally detach and get a clearer vision.

Be O.K. with walking away. Know ones vulnerabilities, needs and learn to fulfill them by oneself. Observe projections and emotions and don’t absorb them.

Who are they?

Over time, a slip of the mask happens. “What lurks beneath makes a brief and fleeing appearance before the control is exerted once again.” – HG Tudor “Show and Tell”

• Lack individuality, originality and creativity

• They are like chameleons. They don’t have authentic personalities and mimic other’s emotions to manipulate them.

Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan (1986) argued that behind the ‘mask of sanity’ lies not insanity but a young child of nine or ten. They are fractured emotionally and are taken over by something.

Where are they leading us?

A particular vision of humanity:

There is a certain reasoning and agenda in what drives psychopaths. What philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1920) once described might characterize it. He urged his readers to make themselves “superior to humanity in power, in loftiness of soul, —contempt” (p. 38). This ‘fighter for human freedom’ revealed to us the fall of human nature in his call for the will to power. He asked:

What is good? —Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man. What is evil? —Whatever that springs from weakness. What is happiness? —The feeling that power increases—that resistance is overcome. (pp. 42-43)

In praise of independence, psychopaths condemn human emotions such as attachment and jealousy as weakness and deny attributes like compassion and cooperation as they don’t even have this capacity. Love – Perfect love without restraints, in exchange of perfect fuel – contract seduction, illusion.


Baron-Cohen, S. (2011). The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books.
Braiker, H. B. (2004). Who’s pulling your strings?: How to break the cycle of manipulation and regain control of your life. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Christianeprice. (2011, April 27). 7 psychopath brain. [Video file]. Retrieved from
Hoffman, M.L. (1987). The contribution of empathy to justice and moral judgment. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (eds.), Empathy and its Development (pp. 47–80). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hogenboom, M. (2013, July 25). Psychopathic criminals have empathy switch. BBC News. Retrieved from
In59seconds. (2014, March 27). Test your empathy! [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYc6PmHI_Y8
Kegan, R. (1986). The child behind the mask: Sociopathy as developmental delay. In W. H. Reid, D. Dorr, J. I. Walker, and J.W. Bonner, III. Unmasking the psychopath. New York: W.W. Norton.
Nietzsche, F, W. (1920). The antichrist. (H. L. Mencken, Trans.). New York, NY: Alfred, A. Knopf.
Tudor, HG. (2016, June 1). Show and tell: The 15 portentous remarks of the narcissist. Narcsite.com. Retrieved from

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