I have a real interest in empathy - supporting it with young people, understanding how it develops, and wondering if it can be strengthened in some people or is set in stone. I guess my gut instinct and my own biases, as well as my hopefulness, tell me that empathy can become stronger in people who struggle with it. My ulterior motive is a that empathy might encourage people to be kinder to strangers - on a micro and macro scale.
I am reading a book right now called Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen. (As an American in the UK, I'm always struck by what a small world the educated or privileged elite live in. I'm assuming that Simon is somehow related to Sacha and one of the individuals he acknowledges went to Cambridge with and is related to an acquaintance.) Anyhow, Baron-Cohen suggests a model whereby degrees of empathy can be measured and can make sense of individuals with narcissism, borderline traits, and psychopathology. He aligns his degrees of empathy against the American DSM definitions. The book is really interesting and easy to read. I could see using it with my psychology students because the case studies are interesting and clear. He also discusses the difference between individuals with autism versus someone with limited empathy due to being a narcissist, for instance. There's good stuff here, but I am left with lots of questions.
Baron-Cohen gives examples of people who are borderline, narcissists, and psychopaths that have zero degrees of empathy. He hasn't, thus far (I have only read about half the book admittedly) clarified if he thinks all of these individuals have zero degrees. It is sort of marketed as a book for the masses and I wonder if they'll appreciate, without him making it explicit, that people can have traits of borderline or narcissism without having a full-blown disorder. (He does acknowledge that some psychodynamic theorists suggest a bit of narcissism is a good thing, but I think he confuses theory here a bit by saying self-hatred is the opposite of narcissism. Indeed, they are actually one in the same in all the psychodynamic theory I have read.)
I really wonder if people with narcissism and borderline disorders - full disorders even - truly have zero degrees of empathy. I wonder how much context and temporal aspects might affect that. It is hard to say and it is true that Baron-Cohen and a group of others are the first in history to have access to brain scans of these individuals. Of course, it is early days. I guess I'm looking for less certainty in his theory, which is really just scraping the surface. We really understand so very little at this point, I think. I have known enough people with borderline personalities, and a few narcissists, not to think from experience that empathy exists for them. It just is variable and state dependent in a way that can be difficult for those around them - and for them ultimately too.
The BBC recently had an article on evidence that psychopaths can switch their empathy on and off. Baron-Cohen alludes to the same sort of switching on and off with different people, including men generally. Sadly, it often seems that people switch their empathy off because of stuff they went through in the childhood and defenses they have put up against the world. That's why I feel like I need to have empathy for those who might appear to have zero degrees of it.