Julia Shaw is a research associate at University College London. She is the author of Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side, from which this essay is adapted.
Bruce McArthur, a man who overnight became one of Canada’s most notorious serial killers, is like a monster straight out of a nightmare. He pleaded guilty to murdering eight men, dismembering them and hiding their remains in plant pots – all the while masquerading as a normal guy who went about his business as a landscaper. On Feb. 8, he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years.
His case led the country to wonder: If this friendly looking middle-aged man could get away with murder for such a long time, who or what else might we be missing?
In the face of atrocity, humans have the tendency to look for simple answers to complicated questions. In this search there is one kind of answer that we particularly like and let dominate the conversation: The individual is just an outlier, a person who is so different from us that we could never be like them. This helps us preserve our own identity as good people and allows us to distance ourselves from wrongdoers. We use words such as “monster” or “evil” to describe them, to dehumanize them and place them in stark contrast with ourselves.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1881, “Thinking evil means making evil.” Only when we assign something the label “evil,” only when we think that something is evil, does it become so. Nietzsche argued that evil is a subjective experience, not something that is inherent to a person or object or action.
Over the past 13 years, as a student, lecturer and researcher, I have enjoyed discussing the science of evil with anyone who is willing to listen. What I like most is destroying the fundamental conceptualizations of good and evil as black and white, replacing them with nuance and scientific insight. I want us all to have a more informed way of discussing behaviour that at first we feel we cannot, and should not, begin to understand. Without understanding, we risk dehumanizing others, writing off human beings simply because we don’t comprehend them. We can – we must – try to understand that which we have labelled evil.
Let’s start by doing an evil empathy exercise. Think of the worst thing you have ever done. Something you are probably ashamed of, that you know would make other people think less of you. Infidelity. Theft. Lying. Now imagine that everyone knew about it. Judged you for it. Constantly called you names arising from it. How would that feel?
We would hate for the world to forever judge us based on the acts we most regret. Yet this is what we do to others every day. For our own decisions, we see the nuances, the circumstances, the difficulties. For others, we often just see the outcome of their decisions. This leads us to define human beings, in all their complexity, by a single heinous term. Murderer. Rapist. Thief. Liar. Psychopath. Pedophile.
These are labels bestowed on others, based on our perception of who they must be, given their behaviour. A single word intended to summarize someone’s true character and to disparage it, to communicate to others that this person cannot be trusted. This person is harmful. This person is not really a person at all – rather, some sort of horrible aberration. An aberration with whom we should not try to empathize because they are so hopelessly bad that we will never be able to understand them. Such people are beyond understanding, beyond saving. Evil.
But who are “they”? Perhaps understanding that every single one of us frequently thinks and does things that others view as despicable will help us understand the very essence of what we call evil. I can guarantee that someone in the world thinks you are evil. Do you eat meat? Do you work in banking? Did you have a child out of wedlock? You will find that things that seem normal to you don’t seem normal to others – and might even be utterly reprehensible. Perhaps we are all evil. Or perhaps none of us are.
As a society, we talk about evil a lot, yet we don’t really talk about it at all. Every day, we hear of the latest human atrocities and superficially engage with constant news chatter that makes us feel like humanity is surely doomed. As journalists often say, if it bleeds, it leads. Concepts that elicit strong emotions are distilled into attention-grabbing headlines for newspapers and shoved into our social-media feeds. Seen before we get to breakfast and forgotten by lunchtime, our consumption of reports of evil is phenomenal.
Our hunger for violence in particular seems greater now than it ever has. In a study published in 2013 by psychological scientist Brad Bushman and his colleagues that examined violence in movies, they found that “violence in films has more than doubled since 1950, and that gun violence in PG-13 films has increased to the point where it recently exceeded the rate in R-rated films.” Movies are becoming more violent, even those specifically for children. More than ever, stories of violence and severe human suffering permeate our daily routine.
What does this do to us? It distorts our understanding of the prevalence of crime, making us think crime is more common than it actually is. It affects who we label evil. It changes our notions of justice.
I come from a world where people hunt monsters. Where police officers, prosecutors and the public collectively take their pitchforks and search for murderers and rapists. They hunt because they want to maintain the fabric of society, to punish those who are perceived to have done wrong. The problem is that these monsters sometimes don’t actually exist.
As a criminal psychologist who specializes in false memories, I see cases all the time in which people search for an evil perpetrator even though no transgression has actually taken place. False memories are recollections that feel real but are not a representation of something that actually happened. They sound a bit like science fiction, but false memories are all too common. As false-memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has said, instead of being an accurate record of the past, memories are much like Wikipedia pages: They are constructive and reconstructive – you can go in there and change them, and so can other people.
In extreme situations, our memories can end up so far from reality that we come to believe we have been the victim of or witness to a crime that never took place, or that we perpetrated a crime that never happened. This is something I have studied directly in my lab. I have hacked people’s memories to, temporarily, make them believe they did something criminal.
But I don’t just study this in the lab. I also study it in the wild. I sometimes get mail from prisoners. These letters are quite possibly some of the most interesting things I receive by post. One came in early 2017. It was written eloquently with beautiful, legible handwriting, both of which are rather unusual characteristics for a prison letter.
It explained that the sender was in prison because he had stabbed his elderly father to death. He hadn’t just stabbed him once, though; he had stabbed him 50 times. The perpetrator was a university lecturer at the time of the murder, with no criminal record. He’s not the kind of guy we would expect to go around stabbing people.
So, why did he do it? I was startled when I learned the answer. The reason for the letter was to ask me to send him my book on false memories, as it was “not yet available at the prison library.” He had seen it mentioned in The Times and said he wanted, he needed, to know more about this area of research. The reason he wanted to know more was that he had come to realize, while in prison, that he had killed his father because of a false memory.
Here’s what he claims happened. While undergoing treatment for alcoholism, it was suggested to him that one thing that explains alcohol dependence is a history of childhood sexual abuse. It was repeatedly suggested to him by therapists and social workers that he must have been abused. While he was undergoing therapy, he was also the primary caregiver for his elderly father. He was exhausted. One evening, while taking care of his father, he claims that the memories all rushed back. In anger, and as an act of revenge, he committed the murder. Once in prison he realized that these events never actually happened and that, instead, he had been led to falsely believe and remember a terrible childhood that never was. He’s now sitting in prison, not denying the act, but having difficulty understanding his own brain, his own behaviour. He had thought, for a period of time, that his father was evil. He then committed a terrible crime. If we believe his version, can we really say that he is evil?
I sent him my book, and in return he sent me a letter and a painting of a pink flower. I keep it on my desk. It’s a reminder to me that, through research and science communication, we can give understanding and humanity back to a group that is too often deprived of both.
It is easy to forget that the complexity of the human experience does not stop just because an individual has committed a crime. A single act should not define a person. Calling someone a murderer because they once made a decision to murder someone seems inappropriate, oversimplified.
Convicts are people, too. For 364 days of the year, a person can be completely law-abiding, and then on the 365th, they can decide to commit a crime. Even the most heinous convicted criminals spend almost all of their time not committing crimes. What do they do the rest of the time? Normal human stuff. They eat, they sleep, they love, they cry.
Yet it is so easy for us to write off such people and to call them evil. And this is why I love doing research in this area. And it’s not just memory that fascinates me in understanding how we create evil. I have also done academic work on the topics of psychopathy and moral decision-making, and I taught a course on evil in which I explored topics as diverse as criminology, psychology, philosophy, law and neuroscience. It is at the intersection of these disciplines that I believe the true understanding of this thing we call “evil” lies.
The problem is that instead of facilitating such understanding, heinous crimes are generally seen as more of a circus show than something we should try to understand. And when we do try to lift the curtain to see the humanity behind the exterior, others often stop us from taking a good look. Discussing the concept of evil is still largely a taboo.
When attempts at empathy and understanding are made, there is often a particularly vicious utterance that is used to shut them down; the implication is that we should not empathize with some people, lest we suggest that we too are evil.
Want to discuss pedophilia? That must mean you are a pedophile. Mention zoophilia? So, you are saying you want to have sex with animals. Want to talk about murder fantasies? You are clearly a murderer at heart. Such curiosity shaming tries to keep a distance between us and the people who are perceived to be evil. It’s “us,” the good citizens, versus “them,” the baddies. In psychology, this is called “othering.” We other someone when we view or treat them as inherently different to ourselves.
But such a distinction is not only adverse for discourse and understanding, it is also fundamentally incorrect. We may think that our labelling of others as evil or bad is rational, and our behaviour toward such individuals justified, but the distinction may be more trivial than we expect. We should all explore the similarities between the groups of people we consider evil and ourselves, and engage with a critical mind to understand them.
Our reactions to deviance may ultimately tell us less about others and more about ourselves. I wrote a book because I want to encourage a curiosity, an exploration of what evil is and the lessons we can learn from science to better understand humanity’s dark side.
So, is there really such a thing as evil? Subjectively, yes. You can call sadistic torture or genocide or rape evil. You may mean something very specific and have well-reasoned arguments as to why you have called a particular person or act evil. But as soon as you have a discussion about it with others, you may find that what you think is an undeniable act of evil is not perceived that way by them. Certainly by the time you bring people who have committed the act into the discussion, you are likely to encounter a different perspective. To once again cite Nietzsche, evil is only created in the moment when we perceive something as such. And just as quickly as we can make evil, if our perception shifts, it can disappear.
We make evil when we label something so. Evil exists as a word, as a subjective concept. But I firmly believe there is no person, no group, no behaviour, no thing that is objectively evil. Perhaps evil only really exists in our fears.
You have probably heard the saying that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Well, the same thing rings true for many contexts – one person’s soldier is another’s insurgent, one person’s sexual liberation is another’s perversion, one person’s dream job is another’s source of all ills. When we learn that evil is in the eye of the beholder, we begin to question the beholder and the society they live in. And when we turn our attention to ourselves, we realize that we sometimes curiously even betray our own sense of morality.
Because of what I consider an insurmountable problem of subjectivity, I think that neither humans nor actions should be labelled evil. Instead, I cannot help but see a complex ecosystem of decisions, cascades of influences, multifaceted social factors. I refuse to summarize all of this into a single hateful word.
But not believing in evil as an objective phenomenon does not make me a moral relativist. I have strong views on what is objectively appropriate behaviour and what isn’t. I believe in fundamental human rights. I believe that intentionally causing pain and suffering is inexcusable. I believe we need to take action when individuals violate the social contracts we make when we live as part of a society.
More importantly, though, knowing the various influences that can contribute to problematic behaviour makes us more likely to identify these influences and to stop them from having their full effect. Understanding that we are all capable of much harm should make us more cautious and more diligent. This is a powerful gift indeed.
If you read my new book, you might get the impression that humans are awful creatures. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make. I am actually far more interested in showing that things we often refer to as evil are part of the human experience. We may not like the consequences, but human tendencies are neither inherently good nor bad – they just are.
Confusingly, the foundation of much that makes us do harm also leads us to do things that benefit society. For example, research by behavioural scientists Francesca Gino and Scott Wiltermuth shows that dishonesty can lead to an increase in creativity – because breaking rules and “thinking outside the box” involve similar thought patterns. They both involve a feeling of not being constrained by rules. Creativity has given us modern medicine, modern technology and modern civility, but it has also given us cyanide, nuclear weapons and bots that threaten democracy. Great benefit and great harm can readily come from the same human proclivity.
Similarly, deviance can be a good thing. Deviating from the norm can make us villains, but it can also make us heroes. Like the kid at school who stands up to bullies on behalf of another, or the soldier who disobeys orders to kill civilians, or the therapist who refuses to write off pedophiles.
Even the author of the Stanford prison experiment, Philip Zimbardo, who showed how easily we can be led to behave badly, has turned his attention over the past few years to studying extreme pro-social behaviour. In a nod to Hannah Arendt’s work, he makes an argument for the banality of heroism. Like evil, heroism is often seen only as a possibility for outliers – people who are abnormal, special. But Dr. Zimbardo asks: “What if the capability to act heroically is also fundamentally ordinary and available to all of us?” They say we should never meet our heroes, lest we find out how normal they really are. But we should all be so lucky.
As Dr. Zimbardo’s prison experiment supported (and as Irish statesman Edmund Burke is often misattributed as saying), “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” So how do we teach people to do something? Dr. Zimbardo argues that we should foster “heroic imagination.”
To do this, we need to do three things. First, we need to share stories of normal people standing up for their values. We need to give people’s imaginations a boost, make them think about normal heroes, realize that they can be one. Because not all heroes wear capes. Second, we need to put ourselves in a state of readiness to act heroically when the opportunity arises, through imagining acting heroically and having a plan as to what we would do in an emergency. And third, we need to teach people that heroes don’t have to act alone. They can recruit others, therein changing the wider personal, political or social landscapes.
When we understand what leads to harm, we can begin to fight against it. This involves taking action to stop harm, fighting against our own urges to do harm, and helping people who have done harm to get better. And whatever we stand for, fight for, feel for, we must never dehumanize each other.
I have but one wish: Please, stop calling people or behaviours or events “evil." It ignores the important nuances of the underlying behaviours.
I encourage you instead to think the unthinkable, speak of the unspeakable, explain the unexplainable, because only then can we begin to prevent that which others have deemed unpreventable.