Science Tackles People’s Beliefs about Good and Evil
By Russell J. Webster (North Central College) and Donald A. Saucier (Kansas State University)
Adolf Hitler and Mother Theresa are two very well-known historical figures that likely conjure two very different sides of human nature: pure evil and pure good. Pure evil and pure good may exist, but our research is more concerned with people’s beliefs or perceptions about pure evil and pure good. Inspired by previous scholarly thinking (Baumeister, 1999), our goal was to scientifically test whether we could measure beliefs in pure evil and pure good, and then examine how these beliefs impact people’s attitudes about various social and political issues. Ultimately, we conducted a series of studies that confirmed that beliefs in pure evil and pure good are psychological concepts that can and should be studied. Our article can be found in the November 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin.
To begin, what do we mean by pure evil and pure good?
Belief in pure evil is the extent to which people believe that there are individuals in the world that fulfill narcissistic and sadistic impulses by intentionally inflicting harm on others. Further, because pure evil is the antithesis of order and peace in the world, and because these impulses cannot be controlled or diminished, we should not bother to understand such “evildoers” and focus on eliminating them from society. People are inclined to think that when somebody acts in an undesirable manner, such as harm-doing, it is because the individual has a disagreeable personality (what psychologists call the fundamental attribution error or correspondence error; Malle, 2006). So, it is reasonable that in order to maintain the perception of an orderly and just world, some people develop the belief that “behind evil actions must lie evil individuals” (Darley, 1992, p. 202).
We predicted that belief in pure evil helps rationalize or justify prejudice, discrimination, and aggression toward perpetrators who (are perceived to) threaten one’s way of life—whether it is challenging one’s values or threatening one’s physical safety. Indeed, in our first studies we found that people who more strongly believe in pure evil more aggressively punish criminals, a very salient perpetrator group. Specifically, people who more strongly believe in pure evil supported the death penalty and desired harsher mandatory sentences for a variety of crimes, while simultaneously opposing criminal rehabilitation.
Further, such individuals also preferred more aggressive approaches over more peaceful routes to resolve foreign policy problems. People who more strongly believed in pure evil report greater prejudice toward Arabs and Muslims, view the world as a fundamentally dangerous place, and feel that preemptive violence (i.e., attacking a group before they have the chance to attack you) is more justifiable; in fact, among the many sociopolitical variables we looked at, the only predictor of preemptive aggression was belief in pure evil. Moreover, on the domestic front, people who more strongly believed in evil also exhibited more anti-Black racism and opposed pro-racial programs as well as opposed social programs benefiting disadvantaged groups in the US.
Meanwhile, belief in pure good is the extent to which people believe that there are individuals in the world, although very rare, that selflessly (i.e., without expectation of intrinsic or extrinsic rewards) and impartially help others in need (even adversaries) without resorting to violence, if at all possible.
We found that people who more strongly believed in pure good expressed a more empathic, peaceful, and nuanced orientation toward others. They were more likely, for example, to be opposed to the death penalty but stronger supporters of criminal rehabilitation programs. They were also stronger supporters of social programs benefiting those most unfortunate and those who are unable to help themselves (needy children). Thus, in line with our predictions, people who more strongly believe in pure good were more impartial in helping others—by wanting to give a second chance to criminals and providing children the means to meet basic needs.
Overall, such individuals also preferred more peaceful routes over more aggressive approaches to handling foreign policy problems. Most telling, people who more strongly believed in pure good reported that they were better able to take the perspective of and feel empathy for others’ plights, saw the world as a less competitive place, and strongly supported diplomacy and humanitarian efforts by the US.
We even reason that people may dismiss “pure good” as lofty and unattainable to help justify their apathetic behavior: “Why bother helping when acting impartially and selflessly is impossible to do?” People may consciously or unconsciously choose to not believe in pure good to justify more “selfish” impulses.
However, we stress that we are not rendering judgments about whether our participants are actually evil or good themselves, or whether it is right or wrong to believe in pure evil or pure good (including whether being “selfish” is a good or bad thing). The purpose of this research was only to examine whether we could and whether it was valuable to study people’s beliefs in pure evil and pure good; our research indicates that the answer is Yes.
Does that mean belief in pure evil and belief in pure good are just opposite sides of the same coin, as many people seem to believe (Baumeister, 1999)? Our research indicates that the answer is actually No. Our research to date consistently shows that belief in pure evil and belief in pure good are not even weakly related to each other. This result surprised us, but we reasoned that people who strongly believe in pure evil and people who strongly believe in pure good both want to better the world; what differs between these sets of beliefs is actually how to get there. Their similarities and differences “cancel” each other out, and thus we do not find any consistent relationship between belief in pure evil and belief in pure good.
Nonetheless, some people are more apt to believe that there are “demons” in this world, and such individuals hold more pre-emptively aggressive stances in dealing with others; meanwhile, some people are more apt to believe that “angels” walk this world and exhibit more rehabilitative, peaceful, and diplomatic orientations toward others.
Russell J. Webster is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology at North Central College in Naperville, IL. He received his PhD in Social/Personality Psychology from Kansas State University in 2012. Dr. Webster’s research focuses on how individual differences and situational factors contribute to intergroup aggression and prosociality as well as how magical thinking (e.g., fantasy and superstition) helps people cope with a chaotic and stressful world.
Donald A. Saucier is an Associate Professor of Social/Personality Psychology at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS. He received his PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Vermont in 2001. Dr. Saucier’s research focuses on the individual differences and situational factors that contribute to the justification and suppression of antisocial behavior (e.g., prejudice, aggression), as well as to decisions to behave prosocially (e.g., to give or withhold help).
Baumeister, R. F. (1999). Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Henry Holt.
Darley, J. M. (1992). Social organization for the production of evil. Psychological Inquiry, 3(2), 199–218. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0302_28
Malle B. F. (2006). The actor–observer asymmetry in causal attribution: A (surprising) meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 895-919
Webster, R. J., & Saucier, D. A. (2013). Angels and demons are among us: Assessing individual differences in belief in pure evil and belief in pure good. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1455-1470.
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