Autists & Psychopaths, Cognitive & Affective Empathy (Perceptual Warfare 17)


“Empathy has two distinct components: cognitive and affective. Cognitive empathy is the ability to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings . . . Affective empathy is the drive to respond with an appropriate emotion to what someone is thinking or feeling. . . Low affective empathy is a necessary factor to explain human cruelty. . . [P]eople with autism and psychopaths are mirror opposites. The psychopath has good cognitive empathy, that’s how they can deceive, but they have reduced affective empathy. People with autism have intact affective empathy but struggle with cognitive empathy for neurological reasons.”
—Simon Baron Cohen, TED Talk[i]

If autism is a different way of perceiving, it may not be accurate to think of individuals “as” autistic but only as capable of (or confined to) a particular way of perceiving. By the same token, so-called ordinary or neurotypical people would be equally confined to their own particular perceptual mode. The fact that the neurotypical mode is more efficient for functioning in our present society doesn’t necessarily mean it is more accurate, only that it’s better suited to the current social arrangement. But then, the current social arrangement is largely the result of a neurotypical perceptual bias, so naturally it would favor neurotypical ways of perceiving.

The autistic way of perceiving may be available to everyone or it may not be. People who appear to be confined to an autistic perceptual mode may be capable of other modes of perception or they may not. It’s too soon to reach any conclusions, since the idea of autism (or ordinary awareness) as a perceptual mode is still relatively new. What can be discussed here is what characterizes the different perceptual modes. Based on the evidence so far, people on the autistic spectrum are unusually sensitive, vulnerable, and impressionable people whose over-developed sensory capacities frequently result in a sensory overload. (This may include senses not yet recognized by conventional science, at least as anything but sensory dysfunction, such as synesthesia.)  This can cause a variety of symptom-behaviors, ranging from emotional withdrawal to violent outbursts. Since the autistic perceptual mode includes enhanced senses, extreme sensitivity to sound, light, and other stimuli, etc., it’s fair to say that most autists try to avoid confrontation or any kind of violent interaction. Simply put, the autistic perceptual mode is firmly at odds with violent or psychopathic behavior. This doesn’t mean it is 100% incompatible with it, only that it’s unlikely there would be any direct correlation between the two. Even if we accept that Adam Lanza was the Sandy Hook shooter and that he was autistic (two questionable claims), it’s still a far cry from establishing any relationship between the two “facts.” If Lanza had been a homosexual or a Christian mystic, would anyone have tried to offer this up as an explanation for his actions? But since autism is understood by the general public as a form of mental illness, the connection is all-too-easy for those people to make.

The autistic perceptual mode is highly empathic, but the empathy it allows for is affective empathy and not cognitive. Typical of affective empathy is extreme sensitivity to witnessing acts of violence (real ones, at least; simulated violence may not have the same effect). Many individuals diagnosed as autistic have a strong aversion to seeing insects killed, never mind human beings. Psychopaths, obviously, have no such aversion. Yet as predators they are highly efficient, and that means they need cognitive empathy to anticipate and exploit the behavior of other people. An interesting example of this mirroring between autists and psychopaths is in their relationship to objects. A psychopath regards living beings, including human ones, as objects, and treats them accordingly. Autists are known to regard objects as living beings, and to develop relationships with them. We could posit from this that, while to the psychopath nothing is alive, to the autist, everything is. Such affective empathy is similar to the sort of animism attributed to primitive humans and especially shamanic cultures. The cognitive empathy of the psychopath appears to be specific to modern culture, with its emphasis on individuality and self-determinism. At the risk of sounding glib, the serial killer, like the hot dog, may be one of the few wholly original products of democracy.

[i] Simon Baron-Cohen is Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) in Cambridge and the author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, published as The Science of Evil in the US. He has also written books for parents and teachers such as Autism: The Facts. His current research is testing the “extreme male brain” theory of autism at the neural, endocrine and genetic levels.

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5 thoughts on “Autists & Psychopaths, Cognitive & Affective Empathy (Perceptual Warfare 17)

  1. POINT #1 Quote: “Based on the evidence so far, people on the autistic spectrum are unusually sensitive, vulnerable, and impressionable people whose over-developed sensory capacities frequently result in a sensory overload. (This may include senses not yet recognized by conventional science, at least as anything but sensory dysfunction, such as synesthesia.)”

    I suspect it has to do with recent research that at least some humans, like dolphins and bats, can “see” sound. To date, the sensory research has not apparently “crossed streams” or merged with research on cognitive and affective empathy patterns as demonstrated, on a continuum, by those demonstrating ‘neurotypical’ vs. autistic tendencies and capabilities. Although let’s hope it does.

    POINT #1b (the sentence immediately following POINT#1) Quote: “This can cause a variety of behaviors, ranging from emotional withdrawal to violent outbursts.”

    Not much of a range. At least not as anything divergent from, as you said @ conclusion of opening para, “But then, the current social arrangement is largely the result of a neurotypical perceptual bias, so naturally it would favor neurotypical ways of perceiving.” Unusually sensitive, subtle-cue (sound?) receptive/impressory people may have the advantage of being vibey people as well as the advantage of being able to synthesize multiple streams of information from multiple sources/directions (as opposed to being linear, literal, or inappropriately metaphorical and objectifying/distancing). As one teenage female with autistic communication capabilities attested (through typing), she avoids eye contact because her mind is taking 1000 pictures of faces, but she ‘sees’ people in other, highly empathic ways, she can sense complex patterns even if it takes her time to express them verbally or to even come up with words for them (a reference to a qualia-rich inner world), and the tantrums she experiences are the result of her need to generate outgoing output to block/redirect the constant influx of ingoing sensory input, i.e., only when her cup runneth over.

    POINT #2: Quote: “The autistic perceptual mode is highly empathic, but the empathy it allows for is affective empathy and not cognitive.”

    Garbage. In fact, the separation of constructs in this thesis, namely, that a) autists are affectively empathic but not cognitively empathic juxtaposed with the notion that b) psychopaths are cognitively empathic but not affectively empathic is an oversimplified, if not an entirely false, dichotomy. The idea that autists do not impose a cognitive overlay on the myriad of affective (likely wave sensory) inputs is absurd at best. Wish I could find the article that touted the advantages of ADHD (which is arguably an auti pattern) – namely, that while neurotypicals are plodding along with step-by-step additive/subtractive, verbal instruction, that the ADHD children have already assembled and synthesized much of the ‘lesson’ via non-verbal data, solved the problem, and are waiting to move on. Usually, unfortunately moving on, in some instructional settings, means …to yet another highly literal, file-within-folder, form of learning.

    The reverse is also true, that psychopaths may be able to cognitively dissect the empathic elements of an exploitable situation or relationship, but they do not usually succeed unless they are also able to ‘sell’ the affective empathy dynamic, i.e., at least pretend that emotionally they are present. They cannot do this without stepping into a role and sending out affective mimicry signals. Detecting the false front means not only becoming savvy to the cognitive distancing behind the mimicry, but to detect incongruences within the affective sell itself. Whether you fall within a more typical sensory pattern or a more qualia-oriented one, it behooves any freedom-loving individual to get hip to how it’s done.

    POINT #3: “The cognitive empathy of the psychopath appears to be specific to modern culture, with its emphasis on individuality and self-determinism.”

    Don’t know what to say but just wow. The aim of the psychopaths/sociopaths is typically to get others to CONFORM to, knuckle-under to, or even become a narcissistic extension of, their will. Dare I say it will be the fierce advocacy and innovative communication designs of auti-communication-form-capable ‘types’ that will ultimately set the example for defending individuality and self-determinism. At the very least, from, as you put it, the warped, self-serving ‘neurotypical perceptual bias’.

    • “This can cause a variety of behaviors, ranging from emotional withdrawal to violent outbursts.”

      Not much of a range.

      Right, I should have stipulated “symptom-behaviors.” I’ll change that now.

      In fact, the separation of constructs in this thesis, namely, that a) autists are affectively empathic but not cognitively empathic juxtaposed with the notion that b) psychopaths are cognitively empathic but not affectively empathic is an oversimplified, if not an entirely false, dichotomy.

      I have tried to talk about ways of perceiving rather than individuals, but it’s difficult to stick to because of the dominant perceptual bias, which is that individuality is the be-all & end-all of the human experience. To the extent that I share this bias (a born-autie who learned to adapt to NT ways), I continue to fall into this trap, discussing a dichotomy which perhaps only exists from the POV of one side of the dichotomy. The result is inherent contradiction, and I’m not sure how to get past this. Self-contradiction is built into the nature of language, I think. Perhaps this is why some autistic-perceivers choose not to adopt it?

      Question: Do you see any value in Baron Cohen’s description, or do you consider it “garbage”?

      The idea that autists do not impose a cognitive overlay on the myriad of affective (likely wave sensory) inputs is absurd at best.

      So is it that they don’t, can’t, or won’t translate that cognition into a recognizable language (social response) in order to communicate with NTs? In other words, why do the signals between autistics and NTs keep getting dropped? Is it just laziness (impatience) on the part of both parties?

      The reverse is also true, that psychopaths may be able to cognitively dissect the empathic elements of an exploitable situation or relationship, but they do not usually succeed unless they are also able to ‘sell’ the affective empathy dynamic, i.e., at least pretend that emotionally they are present. They cannot do this without stepping into a role and sending out affective mimicry signals.

      Like method actors who temporarily become their role?

      Detecting the false front means not only becoming savvy to the cognitive distancing behind the mimicry, but to detect incongruences within the affective sell itself.

      Seeing through the performance, in other words. It sounds like you’re talking about which part of the brain (or being) is in charge: the reptilian brain or the higher mammalian. If psychopaths adopt/adapt affective empathy and put it in service to predatory ends, they can become more effective predators. But they would have to maintain a cut-off point, by which they are able to disconnect from and thereby feed on their prey’s feelings, rather than being overwhelmed (sensitized) by them?

      In contrast, the autist-type is struggling to put the “lower” faculties (survival-based) in service to that “higher” (empathic) perceptual mode? if so this would put them at a distinct disadvantage, in a world overrun with psychopathic predators. In effect, they would be choosing awareness/openness/receptivity (= vulnerability) over survival.

      Whether you fall within a more typical sensory pattern or a more qualia-oriented one, it behooves any freedom-loving individual to get hip to how it’s done.

      Qualia (pron.: /ˈkwɑːliə/ or /ˈkweɪliə/; singular form: quale (Latin pronunciation: [ˈkwaːle]) is a term used in philosophy to refer to individual instances of subjective, conscious experience. The term derives from a Latin word meaning for “what sort” or “what kind.” Examples of qualia are the pain of a headache, the taste of wine, or the perceived redness of an evening sky. Daniel Dennett (b.1942), American philosopher and cognitive scientist, writes that qualia is “an unfamiliar term for something that could not be more familiar to each of us: the ways things seem to us.”

      Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), the famous physicist, had this counter-materialist take: “The sensation of colour cannot be accounted for by the physicist’s objective picture of light-waves. Could the physiologist account for it, if he had fuller knowledge than he has of the processes in the retina and the nervous processes set up by them in the optical nerve bundles and in the brain? I do not think so.”

      The importance of qualia in philosophy of mind comes largely from the fact that it is seen as posing a fundamental problem for materialist explanations of the mind-body problem. Much of the debate over their importance hinges on the definition of the term that is used, as various philosophers emphasize or deny the existence of certain features of qualia. As such, the nature and existence of qualia are controversial.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Qualia

      The aim of the psychopaths/sociopaths is typically to get others to CONFORM to, knuckle-under to, or even become a narcissistic extension of, their will. Dare I say it will be the fierce advocacy and innovative communication designs of auti-communication-form-capable ‘types’ that will ultimately set the example for defending individuality and self-determinism. At the very least, from, as you put it, the warped, self-serving ‘neurotypical perceptual bias’.

      Are you agreeing or disagreeing here?

      I see psychopaths as a magnification of the ideology of individualism and self-determinism that expose the pathology inherent in it. “Manifest destiny” sounds great until you’re on the wrong end of an assault weapon.

      True individuality and self-determinism – autonomy – would of course be free of the need for validation from others, and therefore free of the need to control (or kill) them. I don’t think it’s possible from the neurotypical perceptual mode, however, because autonomy, paradoxically, entails an awareness of being inseparable from the greater system of life-at-large.

      Survival ceases to be an issue then, because however you slice it, life always survives. : )

  2. I would say that the extreme cases of psychopaths really are the product of modern culture. I think of modern culture as like an artificial intelligence, a robotic corporation that moves forward, consumes people’s time and energy, replacing them one after the other, moving on as always even after you are long gone. The transportation network of trains, cars, etc.. is the circulatory system and humans are the fresh blood cells getting moved along…

    It’s not black/white, because psychopaths in my experience have some small sense of real ‘affective’ empathy but that merit is greatly overshadowed by the huge lack of sensitivity for others. Psychos may be genuinely nice and caring for a minute, then the rest of the day they are out to eat everyone. Same as how autists may get a little psycho, but it would be rare and overshadowed by their genuine affective empathy. I could find rational contradictions in this writing, as with any language, but I get what you are saying, I guess you could call it ‘reading between the lines’.

  3. Interesting description (1st para) – similar to the book “Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism.” The author of that book thinks it’s great! He uses the example, without irony, of cattle and sheep – how well they are cared for by civilization’s machinery, and suggests that their conditions and fate is a minor point compared to the main one, that they have found a way to proliferate! That sort of summed up the book’s naivete, for me. It makes some interesting points tho. There’s a summary here: http://www.frc.ri.cmu.edu/~hpm/project.archive/general.articles/1993/931010.Metaman.review.html

  4. Whenever I hear the description of psychopaths I am reminded of the extreme limitation that this condition exerts onto the experience/ particularly the perceptual and affective experience of psychopaths. Have recently read research that, simply put, demonstrates that the psychopaths immunity to fear is highly influenced by perceptual bias in which their focus of awareness essentially overrides their fear response (when an electric shock is given the fear response is overriden when they are focusing on a task, unless that task draws their attention to the fact that they are being given a shock).

    This is good research. We can, if we choose drop the ‘good-bad’ paradigm and see human behaviour as just that behaviour which is conditioned. Psychopathic behaviour is an massively biased circuitry that overrides the being mode. What kind of feedback do psychopaths/ neurotypicals need to be able to switch modes?

    Sensory awareness surely. Therapy needs to address this need.

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