Does Believing in Evil Make Us More Violent and Less Tolerant?

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Photo: STRINGER/Reuters/Corbis

Two weeks ago, many people will tell you, we saw the face of evil. Well, not its face, exactly, since James Foley’s killer wore a black mask as he horrifically beheaded the missing journalist who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012. But the sheer brutality, the sheer inhumanity displayed toward an innocent human being was, in the eyes of much of the world, simply evil incarnate.

Since the video was released, there’s been a hardening in public opinion about the Islamic State, the group which murdered Foley and has seized shocking amounts of territory in Syria and Iraq. It was generally understood that this is a ruthless organization, but since the release of the video, the rhetorical stakes have been heightened: Now almost everyone agrees this isn’t just a dangerous group, but an evil one.  

“The world must know that the United States of America will never back down in the face of such evil,” said secretary of state of John Kerry. The American Spectator, in criticizing what it saw as an overly tepid response from Kerry, griped that “What has been on display again and again in Kerry’s public career is a tone-deafness when it comes to the manifestation of evil.” “If Islamic State isn't 'evil,' what is?,” argued the headline a Chicago Tribune column by Jonah Goldberg.

The idea comes easily to us because evil is an ancient concept for our species. Just about every culture has some version of a force that exists simply to harm and wreak havoc. Evil has many denizens; most familiar are demons and spirits and other such malevolent supernatural creatures, but it isn’t just the religious and the superstitious who believe in evil’s dark power. Secular accounts of “superpredators” and psychopaths — and terrorists — also touch upon this idea in various ways.

But what does it mean to believe in evil? How do our attitudes about its existence shape our worldviews? While researchers stampeded over one another to understand evil behavior in the wake of the 20th century’s seemingly endless bloodletting — a procession of intellectuals led by Hannah Arendt, Stanley Milgram, and Philip Zimbardo helped to illuminate humanity’s darkest corridors — much less research has been done into how the idea of evil itself colors our understanding of the world and its inhabitants.

There appear to be only two published studies that have examined this question directly, and they both point in the same direction: Even when we’re faced with horrific behavior, even when the screens are flashing incessantly with massacres and oppression and zealotry, there might be good reasons not to call what we’re seeing evil. That label might bring with it a cost.

For a study that was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists Maggie Campbell Obaid and Johanna Ray Vollhardt conducted four surveys attempting to unravel how a belief in evil affects individual opinions on the use of violence and other emotionally charged issues.

To do so, they developed a scale to gauge individuals’ level of belief that some people (or societies) are simply evil, full stop. It included items like “There are people in this world who are completely incapable of any type of goodness” and “It is impossible to classify people as essentially good or evil.” (They also gauged respondents’ belief in “redemptive violence” as a means of fighting this sort of evil by presenting them with statements like, “There are adversaries in this world that must be totally annihilated; it would be immoral to negotiate with them.”) Overall, the more strongly people believed in these sorts of statements, the more likely they were to support the death penalty, various forms of state-sanctioned violence, and keeping Guantánamo Bay open.

The psychologists Russell Webster and Donald Saucier ran a somewhat similar study, and they found that the greater the extent to which respondents believed in “pure evil” — that is, the irreducible, unprovoked, bad-for-bad’s sake version of the concept popular in theological accounts — the less they supported diplomatic attempts at peacemaking, the more they supported preemptive war, and the more racist they were (the duo also examined belief in “pure good,” which is another conversation).

So, overall, people who strongly believe in an irreducible force called evil tend to believe a lot more in the use of violence to resolve conflicts (you can’t bargain with evil, after all) and less in the idea of tolerance between different groups of people. And belief in evil isn’t, as one might think, a straightforward offshoot of religious or political beliefs. Both papers found belief in evil to be a stable trait that, while correlated with conservatism and (to a lesser extent) religiosity, couldn’t be fully explained by a person’s beliefs about God or government.

These results suggest that belief in evil might bring out the worst in us. “I think it’s important to point out that this can be dangerous,” said Campbell Obaid. Saucier concurred: “Across the research, basically what we’re finding is that belief in pure evil leads to bad things,” he said.

It would be wrong to view people who believe in evil as inherently violent or intolerant or hateful, of course. Belief in evil offers an important cognitive mechanism for making sense of a world that, as anyone who has watched the news lately can attest, is often rife with horrific, inexplicable violence.

“After something like 9/11, there’s a need to explain that event,” said Saucier. For individuals trying to understand the magnitude of a tragedy like this, evil provides a somewhat easy-to-digest story. “I think that’s part of its draw, part of the attraction to this, that you don’t have to think very hard, you don’t have to think deal with sophisticated terms, you don’t have to try to understand something at a complicated level,” he said.

This ability to sum up complex, tragic events in just a few words — “Evil people did something bad — kill them,” as Saucier put it — makes evil the cognitive equivalent of an ice-cream sundae. It’s always rich and satisfying, but most rich and satisfying when we’re stressed out, when we’re worried and in search of comfort. That can partly explain the “rally to the flag” effect seen across many cultures in the wake of a violent tragedy: that’s when people are most susceptible to Manichean thinking, because that’s when they need the most comfort and the greatest sense of order.

And even beyond its roles as coping mechanisms, belief in evil serves some important purposes, and there are likely good reasons it evolved in the first place. “Giving people the benefit of the doubt, that may be maladaptive,” said Saucier. Sometimes the neighboring tribe really does want to paint themselves with your blood, after all. Given our nature as a social species, and given our history of conflict with genuinely dangerous outsiders, it would almost be shocking if we didn’t err on the side of treating adversaries as immutably evil.

But that doesn’t mean belief in evil is an adaptive feature of human psychology in an age in which there’s so much in-group/out-group mixing, in which we have more capacity to kill and injure one another than at any other point in our history. In the recent Israel-Hamas fighting, for example (as well as the broader, decades-long conflict that sparked it), many people on both sides have exhibited a disregard for the lives of “their” civilians. When you’re dealing with an evil adversary, you just can’t afford to show restraint. I asked Campbell Obaid whether, if she had a chance to run her studies on a bunch of Israelis and Palestinians, she’d be shocked to find that a belief in pure evil correlated with an acceptance of “collateral damage” in the form of dead civilians. “No, that wouldn’t surprise me,” she said.

That might be the biggest problem with the concept of evil: It seems to overflow whichever container it’s poured into. Whenever the term is applied to those who appear to deserve it, invariably, it’s only a matter of time before people who bear some resemblance to the perpetrators in question — but who aren’t them — are swept up as similarly evil (listen to hardline Palestinians talk about Israelis or Jews writ large, or vice-versa). Part of the reason the United States invaded an uninvolved country after 9/11 was that advocates for war were able to paint Saddam Hussein as part of a globe-spanning mass of undifferentiated evil. Evil is such an overwhelming, nuance-destroying concept that it sucks the oxygen out of important debates over nuance and tactics and proportionality.

At the same time, of course, when we’re faced with something like the video of Foley’s execution, it’s hard not to reach for this word. Nothing else seems appropriate; nothing else seems sturdy enough to bear the full horrific weight of what we’re seeing.

One way to resolve this tension, Campbell Obaid suggested, might come down to a question she hasn’t yet had a chance to research: “What’s the difference between labeling actions as evil versus labeling people or a group as evil?” Could this allow us to retain the important aspects of the concept of evil — the way it raises hackles and alarm bells, the way it allows us to mark out truly horrific behavior — without the collateral damage of that overflowing container?

Maybe, in other words, it’s time to shift to a less virulent, all-encompassing conception of evil. “We should be attuned to things that are happening that are wrong — we shouldn’t ignore those,” Campbell Obaid said, “But if you just label a group of people evil, it makes it so easy to justify anything in the name of dealing with that evil.”