The Psychology of Evil

If I were to guess what topic most interested people about human behavior, I would say it would have something to do with “evil.” I long have been struck by the observation that people are fascinated with what constitutes evil and what explains evil. This can be seen in people’s curiosities about mass murderers such as Jeffrey Dahmer.

For better or worse, I share many of these interests. In fact, in recent years, I have become, at times, almost obsessed with what is perhaps the best example of mass evil ever committed – the Holocaust of World War II – during which over 10,000,000 people (Jews, Roma, homosexuals, political opponents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and mentally ill) were murdered. I have read many books detailing first-person accounts of what the Holocaust really was like, both from the perspective of victims, of which there are many more accounts (my “favorite” is “Night,” by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel), and from the perspective of perpetrators. At some point, I decided that I wanted to teach a course related to the topic. To learn more, I applied, and was accepted, to be a part of a small, intense, week-long seminar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. in January, 2011. I also have interviewed several concentration camp survivors in the past year, and have brought several to Normandale to speak on campus. Along with my friend and colleague, Dr. Jay Anderson, I will be teaching a course in the Psychology of the Holocaust during Spring semester, 2012, which will include a Spring Break tour of Holocaust sites in and around Berlin, Prague, Krakow (including Auschwitz), and Budapest.

In all of this, I have struggled with the meaning of “evil.” Phil Zimbardo, lead scientist of the “Stanford Prison Study” provides a comprehensive definition in his book “The Lucifer Effect:”

“Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others – or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf. In short, it is ‘knowing better but doing worse.’”

To this, I’d like to add my conviction that behaviors may be evil, but that it is inaccurate to say that people are entirely “evil.” In fact, I imagine we all struggle with evil impulses at times, but that everyone also has good impulses as well. Related to this, Zimbardo notes:

“Most of us perceive Evil as an entity, a quality that is inherent in some people and not in others. Bad seeds ultimately produce bad fruits as their destinies unfold. . . Upholding a Good-Evil dichotomy also takes ‘good people’ off the responsibility hook. They are freed from even considering their possible role in creating, sustaining, perpetuating, or conceding to the conditions that contribute to delinquency, crime, vandalism, teasing, bullying, rape, torture, terror, and violence.”

Some wonder whether evil is caused by an external force. In his book “People of the Lie,” Scott Peck raises the possibility that evil sometimes is caused by evil powers such as demons. In this way, Peck reflects a historical notion – a notion still popular today in many parts of the world such as Africa – that spiritual powers cause evil, whether directly in the form of possession or indirectly in the form of spiritual oppression.

Personally, I don’t think that dark spiritual forces directly cause much evil. For example, I don’t think that Hitler was possessed by the Devil. The idea of spiritual oppression existing in all of human nature makes more sense to me in that it seems that everyone is imperfect, incomplete, insecure, inadequate, and likely tempted to do harmful things on occasion. On the other hand, my opinion on this matter may be influenced largely by Western culture and my scientific training and so I’d like to keep an open mind. Generally speaking, I consider spiritual causes in the universe when natural causes somehow seem inadequate. In this context, then, I probably wouldn’t consider the possibility of dark spiritual forces being involved in an action unless other causes seemed insufficient in their explanation of the relevant behavior.

Psychologists tend to emphasize the role of personal and situational causes of evil. In his book “Evil,” Roy Baumeister provides an exhaustive review of some of these influences. The factors that Baumeister most emphasizes include (1) the use of evil as a means toward some end (such as material acquisitions, sex, status, or power), (2) threat to a fragile and overly inflated ego, (3) idealistic fanaticism, and (4) conformity or obedience to others engaged in evil actions. As the author of the classic Stanford Prison Study, Zimbardo emphasizes the relevance of classic social psychological research suggesting how powerfully situations and larger social systems influenced individuals to perform evil actions in the Holocaust and the recent Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses. In this way, psychologists often suggest that we might release some of our natural tendency to judge others for their evil actions. After all, if we found ourselves in the same exact situation, we might find ourselves doing the exact same evil acts.

Interestingly, the most influential explanations of evil ignore biological forces that may play a role. Behavioral genetics research suggests that genetics helps to account for why some people are more violent than others. Based on this, I imagine that there likely is some kind of genetic predisposition toward evil or good. Neuroscience likely also has investigated some of the biological mechanisms involved in the brain. Taken together, I assume that an approach to explaining evil that appreciates the mutual interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors is most accurate.

When I am feeling optimistic, I believe that these causes can be overcome, that good can triumph over evil. For example, if perpetuated by a group phenomenon, individuals can act against the crowd to change the situation and prevent or minimize evil. As Zimbardo suggests, heroes show that even difficult obstacles can be overcome more often than we might guess.

Sometimes, though, I have my doubts about this. In her remarkable book “Into That Darkness,” Gitta Serenv documents about 70 hours of interviews that she conducted with Franz Stangl, a leader in the Third Reich who worked at the T4 euthanasia program in Berlin and who commanded the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps. He was the only Commandant of a camp brought to trial, and ultimately was sentenced to a life sentence in prison. While reading this book, I started to realize that many individuals involved in the Holocaust really felt powerless. For example, Stangl once commented that:

“If I had sacrificed myself. . . if I had made public what I felt, and had died. . . it would have made no difference. Not an iota. It would all have gone on just the same, as if it and I had never happened.”

As another example, when I was at the seminar I mentioned at the Holocaust Museum, I was struck by how little we discussed Hitler. I asked about this, and the various Holocaust scholars all agreed that Hitler actually played a fairly minimal role in causing the Holocaust. They agreed that the Holocaust probably would have happened even if Hitler hadn’t been present. If it hadn’t been led by him, they argued, it would have been led by someone else. I was left to conclude that, often times, situational causes of behavior are considerably more powerful than most of us would guess, particularly when the group is as large as an entire region.

Ultimately, though, I must confess that I am mystified by evil. For example, in “Into That Darkness,” I read some passages that left me shaking my head, not sure what to think. In one passage, one of the guards at Treblinka states:

“A mother jumps down with her baby and calmly looks into a pointing gun-barrel – a moment later we hear the guard who shot them boast to his fellows that he managed to ‘do’ them both with one shot through both their heads.”

I believe that there were social-psychological factors involved in the Holocaust, but ultimately, I think these events speak to the evil that exists in humanity, perhaps even in every individual. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Or, as Origen once stated, “The power of choosing between good and evil is within the reach of all.”


2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Evil

  1. Pingback: What Drives Mankind to Be Evil?

  2. Pingback: What Drives Mankind to Be Evil? - Psych2Go

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