So, why are people evil?

Why Are People Evil?

Here’s a rabbit hole I went down yesterday:

  • Read this article (in print, not online because I’m old school!) about Bosnian war criminals living in the U.S. and how they might be deported.
  • Asked my wife, “Wait, why are we deporting people for something that happened on foreign soil 20 years ago?”
  • We got into a deep discussion about that. (I agree there should be no statue of limitations on genocide, if you’re wondering about my personal morality.)
  • I walked over to the dishwasher as she was going to take a shower, and I casually tossed out, “Hey, do you know why Argentina was so accepting of Nazis?”
  • She didn’t really, so I Googled that.
  • That led me here.
  • I started reading about a bunch of terrible Nazi shit, most notably Mengele (who did escape and eventually died on a Brazilian beach).
  • My wife’s still in the shower, and I’m all like, “Whoa, so what are the origins of evil?”
  • Rabbit Hole No. 2 commenced.

I’m pretty interested in evil. I don’t think it’s weird to say that; most of the notable TV characters of the past decade are, in fact, anti-heroes. We all seem pretty fascinated with bad people at a pop culture level.

Also, I’m inclined to personally think (and I mean, I’m no scientist or biologist) that no one is fundamentally born evil, which means that “evil” is inherently a journey to a destination, which theoretically means anyone can go on it, which brings us back to the idea of why Breaking Bad was such a good show.

So, why are people evil?

Here’s one good resource:

So how do human beings go from good, to bad, to evil? My experiments have shown that 95 percent of the thousands of people I have studied release oxytocin when they receive a positive social signal. Oxytocin-releasers include having someone trust you with their money, being touched, and even watching an emotional movie. Five percent of those I have tested do not release oxytocin after such stimuli. These individuals have many of the traits of psychopaths: they are charming, deceptive, and even self-deceptive. And, when there is money that can be shared with others, they unabashedly keep it all for themselves. Greed, you will remember, is one of the seven deadly sins.

Interesting thing about that: “positive social signal” to “positive reaction to that social signal” is an underlying component of the human moral fabric, right? It’s kind of like reciprocity. The terrifying off-shoot of this discussion is that companies don’t offer positive social signals, so maybe companies are creating a whole ton of sociopathic individuals day-in and day-out. (That’s not too far from the truth.)

Here’s more of interest:

Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of development psychopathology at Cambridge University and author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, says that human behaviour is never more than 50 per cent determined by genetics. Although one version of a MAOA gene increases the likelihood of committing anti-social behaviour, Baron-Cohen says no gene will inevitably lead to psychopathic behaviour.

“If you look at the history of people committing anti-social acts, breaking the law and hurting other people, there are strong environmental factors that predict that,” says Baron-Cohen. “Growing up in an environment of criminality is one big factor, as is early neglect and abuse – those purely emotional factors.”

Human behavior is never more than 50 percent determined by genetics. You learn something new every day.

From the same article:

Although most children become distressed when those around them are unhappy, some are less reactive to others’ emotions. “This is what psychologists call emotional contagion,” says Viding. “We think it’s one of the early markers of how readily you develop empathy.” A lack of empathy is one of the key signs of psychopathy, and increases the likelihood of committing harmful crimes.

Most pieces you read about evil come back to this basic idea: empathy. Without empathy, you’re essentially evil. I am sure people who lack empathy don’t always necessarily go off and kill someone else, but if you want a baseline definition for “evil,” it seems like “lacking empathy for others” would be a good place to start the process. (Empathy is also something you need to get people to listen to you, so that’s kind of an odd Catch-22: if you’re not empathetic, chances are you’re very alienated, and being very alienated can also contribute to a lack of empathy).

At a very basic level, there’s also this:

One of the powerful motivations for evil is boredom. And what do you do to relieve boredom? You have to do something exciting, something novel, something different.

That’s from Phillip Zimbardo (the Stanford Prison Guard Experiment guy). It’s also within the embedded video above.

The more I’ve written here, the base concept of “work” really terrifies me. Offices typically are places with a lot of me-first orientations, limited empathy, and rampant opportunities for boredom (at least at the rank-and-file level). It’s amazing more terrible shit doesn’t happen there every day, if you really think about it. (Zimbardo has also said that the line between “good” and “evil,” which are admittedly abstract terms, is at the center of every human heart. I don’t disagree with that, honestly.)

And yet another resource:

If you trace the roots of the word “evil” back in history, you discover that it comes from a really old word that means “over”, and this is Hitler’s crime. He felt that he was so thoroughly superior to others that anything he cared to do was allowable.

Excessive belief in personal superiority is behind a wide range of antisocial behavior. We call it “dehumanization” when performed by serial killers, politicians and ideologues because the individual stops having empathy for those that they consider “others”. This leads them to suggest things like putting all of said others behind an electrified fence until they die off.

Ha, excessive belief in personal superiority … another common workplace trait. This list is disheartening.

After I read a bunch of this stuff, I started thinking about people in my own life. I actually know a ton of people (more than 10, let’s say) who pretty much have limited empathy. Honestly, sometimes I worry about that shit myself — in terms of in me. I cry at bad situations (and romantic comedies, HUZZAH), but sometimes I worry things that happen to others don’t affect me as much as they probably should. (Ironically, I’ve also had the exact opposite worry. I’m a complex person.) I generally think I’m empathetic, but like I said, I know a ton of people that aren’t. Does that mean they’re all evil? Or all sociopaths?

Probably not. It more likely means the whole idea of “evil” is pretty nuanced and a wide continuum; you can be evil in a small corporate way and that doesn’t mean you hacked a family to death. You can hack a family to death and you can be great at cocktail parties (see: Bundy, Ted). It’s really hard to nail it down in any type of exact way. Hopefully this was a helpful resource, though.

If you have ideas, feel free to leave ’em in the comments or use the comment form to start a dialogue. 




Ted Bauer