What is Evil?

02.10.2020 |

Episode #1 of the course Psychology of evil by Psychology Insights Online


A very warm welcome to this course on the “Psychology of Evil”. We are Psychology Insights Online. A team of Ph.D. level researchers, psychologists, and professors who are dedicated to sharing our knowledge of psychology with the public. The research on the psychology of evil is diverse and fascinating. It is one of the topics that is especially appealing for students and often sparks a lively discussion. We hope that you find this course equally interesting and gain new insight into human nature.

Let’s begin by addressing the obvious question, what is evil? The simple truth is that there is no one agreed-upon answer. Philosophers have struggled with this topic for years and have offered varying interpretations of what evil is. In psychology, we attempt to study subjects like evil using the scientific method, which requires us to first operationally define evil and then objectively measure it. One definition of evil was offered by Philip Zimbardo, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University. Zimbardo suggests that evil is an intentional action to inflict varying degrees of harm (e.g., demeaning others, aggression, violence) onto other innocent people. If you were to look at the dictionary definition of evil, you’d find a similar theme, focused on delivering some type of harm to another person(s). What’s critical in this “behavioral perspective” is that the perpetrator is acting intentionally and is not accidentally inflicting harm.

Now, let’s say we come to a common definition of what evil is, the next logical question is what causes it? Psychologists have approached the different causes of evil from three broad viewpoints: the dispositional, situational, and interactionist perspectives. Let’s take a look at each separately.

Dispositional perspective. Are some people just born evil? How would we know? The dispositional domain refers to differences between people in something that is in our genetic makeup, which would predispose us to commit evil acts. In other words, the likelihood of committing evil is increased based on specific traits that are internal to the person and are inherited. In psychology, identifying these kinds of dispositions has been the primary focus of personality psychologists. The terms disposition and traits are virtually interchangeable. Individual personality traits, and larger models of traits, that are linked to immoral and evil behavior have been identified. In later lectures, we are going to discuss personality models and traits that are often associated with evil in more detail.

Situational perspective. Are people born good, but then learn to become evil? Do certain environments or situations create evil? Can evil be prevented? Psychologists who view evil from the situational perspective argue that there are factors in the circumstances that we find ourselves in, which can cause us to act in ways that we wouldn’t have otherwise. For instance, if you are usually a passive person but find yourself in the middle of a brawl, there are situational determinants present that would likely cause you to act aggressively. Social psychologists usually focus on these environmental causes of evil, often in psychology experiments conducted in a university laboratory. The premise is good people can be influenced by the situation to act in evil ways, not just the “bad apples”. In later lectures in the course, we will discuss the power of the situation in discrimination, conformity, and obedience.

Interactionist perspective. Are bad people more likely to take advantage of certain situations to act immorally? Most contemporary personality and social psychologists now agree that the best way to assess the causes of evil behavior is to account for how stable traits interact with situational influences. From this viewpoint, the actions of good and bad people will often depend on the situation they are in.

In the next lesson, I am going to start by discussing the dispositional view of evil in more detail. We’ll focus on personality models that have been used to help explain why some people are more likely to commit evil deeds.

See you tomorrow!


Recommended book

Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others by David Livingstone Smith


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