Fresh, compelling analysis of the human capacity for cruelty, and how redefining evil in terms of empathy can reveal new psychological insights.

Baron-Cohen (Developmental Psychopathology/Univ. of Cambridge; The Essential Difference: The Truth About the Male and Female Brain, 2003, etc.) has spent 30 years researching autism and its neurological relationship with empathy, defined as the ability to identify another's thoughts or feelings and respond appropriately. Historical examples of evil, such as Nazi torture, can be examined in light of this "empathy quotient,” and the author argues that everyone lies somewhere on the "empathy spectrum." Baron-Cohen explores the complex interplay between social and genetic factors that results in an individual having a high or low level of empathy. Low or zero levels can result in cruel or hurtful behavior, though not always; a variety of factors, including early-childhood parenting, affect individual behavior. The author suggests that modern psychiatry, which identifies "personality disorders" as borderline, narcissistic or psychopathic, can reconceptualize these categorizations by instead classifying them as examples of zero degrees of empathy. Doing so would encourage new social and scientific approaches to diagnosis and treatment options, and may have long-term effects on how societies treat affected individuals. Baron-Cohen raises and effectively parses tricky ethical and biological questions (Should a person with zero empathy serve prison time for a crime he doesn't understand was wrong? Is there an "empathy gene"?), backing up his arguments with scientific research. He also makes a point to declare his book an attempt to "restimulate discussion on the causes of evil by moving the debate out of the realm of religion and into the realm of science.” Biological and psychological factors, not religious belief, he argues, determine cruel behavior. Only by examining the roots of those factors can we begin to understand empathy, which he calls "the most valuable resource in our world.” Baron-Cohen's theory is exhilarating in its implications.


Pub Date: June 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-465-02353-0

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2011

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...


A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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