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Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty—A Review
“If I had to say what the primary law of human nature is, it is to deny that we are subject to these forces. We think, I’m not irrational, I’m not aggressive, I don’t feel envy, I’m not a narcissist. It’s always the other side…they’re the ones who are irrational and aggressive. Me? No.”
—Robert Greene, The Daily Laws
There is a widespread belief that only evil people are capable of truly evil acts.
Many people view the crimes of Nazi Germany, Maoist China, the Soviet Union, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia through the eyes of the victims.
But to understand evil, it would be wise to view it through the eyes of the perpetrators.
Had you or I been an ordinary German, Chinese, Russian, or Cambodian person living under those regimes, we would in all likelihood not have resisted. We would have been supporters, either actively or passively.
The best book to understand the psychology of evil is Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty by the renowned psychology professor Roy Baumeister.
This was a “quake book” for me when I first read it.
It shook my mental foundations and changed the way I see the world.
This extended essay is an overview of this incredible book, along with some commentary.
The book is about the psychological understanding of evil, not a philosophical or moral treatise on what constitutes evil.
Baumeister writes, “The hardest part of understanding the nature of evil is to first recognize that you or I could, under certain circumstances, commit many of the acts that the world has come to regard as evil.”
One way to avoid committing such acts is to understand that we are capable of them.
Evil is Intentional
For the purposes of the book, Baumeister defines evil as “actions that intentionally harm other people.” For example, the book treats loss of self-control as a result of emotional distress as a possible cause of evil, but not psychosis.
This is because the person who is under distress is still in control of what they are doing, while the person with psychosis is not.
Some people here might get hung up on free will or whatever. But for evil to be defined as evil, there has to be room for conscious choice.
Here is an example from the psychologist Paul Bloom, which helps to illuminate the distinction Baumeister is making:
“Consider a man who thrashes in his sleep and hits his wife in the face, breaking her nose. They both wake up, and he is horrified at what has happened. Compare this to a man who hates his wife and wants to hurt her. One night, he waits for her to fall asleep and then, fully awake, hits her in the face. When she awakes, he pretends to be horrified at what had happened. Common sense tells us that only the second man is blameworthy because only he chose his action. It is impossible to imagine a legal or moral system that doesn’t take this difference between the two men seriously.”
The Myth of Pure Evil
The book focuses primarily on the psychology of perpetrators.
At the outset, Baumeister acknowledges that any sincere effort to understand the perpetrators of vicious acts will be insensitive to the victims.
Baumeister states bluntly, “This book cannot be ‘politically correct.’” There is plenty in this book to outrage people across the political spectrum.
The book first outlines “the myth of pure evil.”
This myth encompasses three beliefs:
1. Most evil acts are done deliberately by people who know they are evil
2. Most perpetrators of evil derive pleasure from the harm they inflict
3. Victims are mostly innocent and good
The myth of pure evil characterizes evildoers as always having been evil.
In fictional stories, bad guys are usually that way from the start.
People often perceive real life villains this way too.
People don’t ask what unfortunate experiences led good and decent men like Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, or Mao Zedong away from the path of virtue. Rather, we ask how such obviously evil men gained so much power in the first place.
Relatedly, Baumeister has argued, along with psychology professor David Pizarro, that superhero comics are a form of “moral pornography.”
In short, these fictional tales are popular because they satisfy a basic human motive: Dividing the world into good people and bad.
In comics, the bad guys are bad, they know they’re bad, and they delight in being bad.
X-Men comics has a group of supervillains called the “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.” There is no ambiguity here. Evil is right in the name.
In real life, violent groups seldom put evil-sounding words in their name. They might even give themselves a nice-sounding name like “anti-evil.”
And evil acts are often performed by people who think they are doing something good.
Still, the myth of pure evil survives because it satisfies key human needs and reassures people of their own innocence and goodness.
It confers moral immunity on people. The myth allows them to justify their own actions while condemning others. It allows evil to masquerade as good.
People Have Plenty of Reasons To Be Violent
For some social phenomena, people have difficulty distinguishing between explanation and justification.
Why did that man murder his brother? “Because his brother humiliated him.” That’s no excuse! “You’re right, it’s not an excuse. It doesn’t exonerate him. But it is an explanation.”
As Baumeister puts it, “I do not want to make apologies or excuses for people who commit terrible actions. I do want to understand them, however, and so it is necessary to understand the excuses, rationalizations, minimizations, and ambiguities that mark their state of mind.”
This makes many people uncomfortable. But the book states that if social scientists refuse to understand evildoers on their own terms, then they are ultimately abandoning scientific understanding in favor of moral condemnation.
There are people who favor this line of thinking for specific cases. Some say we should spend less time condemning prison inmates and more time understanding what led them to commit crimes. But often those same empathic people would react negatively if someone were to suggest we should seek to understand, say, fascist dictators, rather than condemn them.
However, perpetrators themselves seldom acknowledge that they have done anything wrong.
Most people who hurt others do not regard their actions as evil. They might acknowledge that they have harmed or exploited someone. But they will usually say their action was justified or that the victim deserved to be treated that way.
If we were to limit the definition of evil only to actions that perpetrators themselves acknowledge as evil, then there would be very few examples indeed.
Most prison inmates are reluctant to acknowledge they have done anything wrong.
Generally, people who commit evil don’t see what they do as bad. Instead, they see it as a justified response to a difficult situation.
Intriguingly, the book states that after reviewing all the possible causes of aggression, violence, and oppression, one doesn’t ask, “Why is there evil?”
Rather, the opposite question arises—“Why isn’t there more evil than there is?”
If it’s true that frustration, violent films, video games, poverty, warm weather, alcohol, drugs, and unfair treatment all cause hostility and aggression, then why hasn’t every adult in America committed several murders and assaults by now?
The answer the book provides is: Self-control. Most of us experience flashes of rage, but we keep it under control. 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women report having had at least one vivid homicidal fantasy.
People don’t need reasons to be violent—they already have plenty of reasons.
Any of us can rattle off a dozen or more grievances and instances of mistreatment we have suffered. But we restrain ourselves from lashing out with violence.
Which means that all you have to do to unleash evil in people is to remove reasons to restrain themselves.
Take away blame, punishment, shaming, social sanctions, legal systems, etc. and violence will inevitably emerge.
As Baumeister puts it, “Evil is always ready and waiting to burst into the world.”
Alcohol is often blamed for violent behavior. It’s implicated in at least half of violent crimes. But alcohol merely reduces inner restraints against violent urges. It does not create those urges. Alcohol merely unleashes already-present aggression.
The Gap Between Victims and Perpetrators
A key component of evil is the “magnitude gap.”
Victims’ recollection of what happened is almost always much greater than what perpetrators recall.
Victims of wrongdoing remember the events long after they have passed. But perpetrators usually forget within a short time span.
For victims, their first motto is “never forget.” For perpetrators it’s, “Let bygones be bygones.”
Perpetrators want to move past what they’ve done, while victims want to dwell on their misfortune, considering it crucial for understanding the present circumstances.
Furthermore, perpetrators’ second slogan is “I couldn’t help it.”
From their perspective, it is evident how external factors beyond their control led them to hurt someone. These peripheral causes diminish their own responsibility.
People typically highlight these external factors when they admit they’ve done something wrong.
To some degree, it lets them off the hook.
Victims, on the other hand, emphasize that the perpetrator had no reason at all for what they’ve done. They emphasize the sheer outrageousness and utter incomprehensibility of what the perpetrator has done. “Senseless violence.” “There was no reason for him to do that.”
They frame perpetrators as deliberately malicious, aiming to commit harm as an end in itself.
But perpetrators seldom tell stories in which they exhibit meanness or that they relished the harm they inflicted.
The view of evil as sadistic and cruel is primarily the claim of the victim. The view of evil as an unfortunate byproduct of circumstance is often the claim of the perpetrator.
Evildoers favor the fundamental attribution error as an explanation for what they’ve done. Victims favor the myth of pure evil for what they’ve suffered.
Victims blame the person. Perpetrators blame the situation.
Victims condemn perpetrators because they believe their actions reveals what the perpetrator is “really like.” The transgression is not seen as isolated and out of character, which is how perpetrators depict their acts. Rather, victims see such acts as something that reveals the inner self of the transgressor.
Perpetrators blame their actions on external circumstances. “That’s not who I really am.”
These patterns are often evident in cases of ethnic conflict. Baumeister points out that violence can erupt more easily when people focus on differences between their own group and other groups. He writes:
“In the history of the world, increased recognition of differences between groups has led more often to conflict and violence than to peaceful cooperation and sharing. America is now making a dangerous gamble on the opposite result.”
Believe All Victims
Who should we believe: victims or perpetrators?
The usual answer is to assume victims are telling the truth. And assume perpetrators are lying or downplaying their acts to diminish their culpability.
But victims have their own reasons to see things in a certain light. They might distort the facts too.
The book describes a study in which people read a story of something that occurred. People were randomly assigned the role of either the victim or the perpetrator in the story.
Next, the people had to recite the story from memory. They had to talk about it as if it had actually happened to them.
The researchers then compared these participant recollections with the objective information they had given the participants.
The result was that regardless of whether people were assigned the role of victim or perpetrator, they distorted the facts to an equal degree.
The participants assigned to be victims modified the story to make the offense seem greater than it really was. The participants assigned to be perpetrators modified the story to make the act seem less bad.
For example, perpetrators played up mitigating factors such as being under severe stress. But victims were likely to omit the fact that the perpetrator was experiencing stress.
And victims stressed the long-lasting effects of what had happened. But perpetrators often omitted that detail.
Plainly, victims and perpetrators can see the same act completely differently. It may not always be wise to take a victim’s story as objective truth.
I’ve written about how people high on the Dark Triad (psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism) are more likely than average to broadcast that they have suffered undue hardship.
Such people, if they are a victim of some misdeed, are likely to play up their experiences to elicit sympathy, seek exoneration for their own transgressions, or obtain other benefits.
So what can we conclude about how perpetrators think? For people who commit harm, events are complex and morally ambiguous.
There are mitigating factors. They were stressed out. They were impoverished. They were maltreated. They were humiliated. And so on. It’s not totally their fault, what they did.
In other cases, perpetrators might feel that what they did was fully justified. That it was the right thing to do.
What about victims? They often see the world through the myth of pure evil. What happened to them was terrible, senseless, and inexplicable.
Many perpetrators see themselves as victims.
For a real world example, take the case of John Wayne Gacy. He kidnapped, raped, and murdered at least 33 people.
When asked about what he had done, Gacy replied, “I see myself more as a victim than a perpetrator. I was the victim, I was cheated out of my childhood.”
Going on, he wondered aloud if, “there would be someone, somewhere who understood how badly it had hurt to be John Wayne Gacy.”
Baumeister shares studies indicating that prison inmates more often feel like victims than perpetrators.
Other research in the book documents how, for perpetrators of genocide and ethnic violence, “The ones who carry out the massacres perceive themselves as victims of mistreatment and injustice.”
Hitler and the Nazis famously cast the Germans as victims of “nefarious” Jewish people.
Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and other communist leaders carried out horrific acts resulting in bloodbaths by demonizing anyone deemed to be a “class enemy,” i.e., an oppressor.
In former Yugoslavia, Serbs, generally regarded as the perpetrators of the more horrific atrocities, regarded themselves as the victims in Bosnia.
There are two advantages for perpetrators to regard themselves as victims.
First, victims have a legitimate claim for sympathy. A 2020 study found evidence for the “Virtuous Victim” effect, in which victims are seen as more moral than non-victims who have behaved in exactly the same way.
People are inclined to positively evaluate those who have suffered. To a perpetrator hoping to avoid blame, casting oneself as a victim is a shrewd strategy.
Second, victimization is often considered an acceptable explanation for one’s own misdeeds. Claiming victim status gets you off the hook. If someone commits a crime, they can play up the pain they experienced in childhood, or how they were victimized in some way that led them to their sinister acts.
The book discusses how acts of violence are often the result of mutual provocation. It cites studies showing, for example, that the majority of homicides involved escalating insults from both parties until one person killed the other.
In half of domestic violence cases, both parties were violent.
But in cases of mutual aggression, people often state that the other party was unreasonably, gratuitously violent whereas they themselves were innocent, well-intentioned, and merely forced to defend themselves.
The book suggests that most people become violent only when they think they have been attacked in some way. Few people suddenly lash out for no reason. As Baumeister puts it, “The idea that people simply start beating up their spouses out of the blue, for no apparent reason, does not fit well with what is known about human nature.”
Rather, it is more likely that in marriages full of mutual hostility, resentment, power struggles, jealousy, insults, and contempt, eventually someone person crosses the line from verbal harm to physical harm. Of course, the perpetrators of such harm are not off the hook. Many may misinterpret innocuous remarks as threatening. Still, the fact that they perceive such threats overturns the idea that people randomly erupt in violence for no reason.
I thought this claim by Baumeister wasn’t explored fully enough. I’ve read that certain kinds of people (psychopathic types, for example) seek to hurt their partners by intentionally misinterpreting innocuous remarks from their partners. They then might use that as a pretense to respond violently. If this is the case, though, it is still intriguing that they would feel the need to create the pretense rather than simply lashing out. Perhaps the fake excuse is a way for them to later explain what they’ve done. Still, this book is mostly about what causes ordinary people to commit evil, which presumably excludes psychopaths.
Generally, people who act violently often believe themselves to be responding to the aggressive acts, physical or verbal, of someone else.
Does this mean no one is to blame? No. Sometimes victims play some role in their own misfortune, but this does not exonerate perpetrators, who carry the bulk of the blame regardless of their reasons.
Again, there is a difference between explaining a violent act and excusing it.
Understanding the reasons behind a person’s actions does not exonerate them.
Our tendency to see good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, makes us unable to see things as they are. People do not typically commit violence at random. And just because a person has been victimized, does not excuse their subsequent misdeeds.
Seeing people as either all good or all bad—what some psychologists describe as “moral typecasting”—blinds us to the realities of human nature.
Evil As A Means To An End
The book describes four basic causes of evil.
The first is instrumental evil: inflicting harm as a means to an end.
An easy way to understand instrumental harm is that the perpetrator would abandon violence if they could achieve the same goal without it. They’d rather not do it, but it’s the quickest path to get what they want.
People who commit instrumental evil come off looking relatively good compared to other kinds of violent perpetrators. For example, people who choose violence because the victim’s suffering is the essential point. This, some say, is what distinguishes a hate crime from other harmful crimes.
Baumeister shares research indicating that instrumental violence seldom works in the long run. Very few criminals become rich and retire to a life of ease.
For example, the average payoff in a bank robbery is $2,664. But 4 out of 5 bank robbers are eventually caught. The expected value here is well into the negative digits.
The same applies to governments that commit instrumental violence. Consider the instrumental use of torture.
In most instances, interrogators who use torture are not sadistic. They simply want information. Violence is a means to an end.
But what seems to happen is that torturers, of course, do not tell the victims what to confess. They want the truth, and forcing someone to agree to a ready-made accusation is often unacceptable.
So the victim, in order to make the pain stop, tries to guess what the interrogator wants to hear and starts to announce all sorts of crimes, which the torturers dutifully record.
Torturers often ask for accomplices under threat of further torture. So victims begin naming various people.
This is often what happened in the first place—a former victim named the current victim being tortured as an accomplice.
This is how blood purges worked in Maoist China and the Soviet Union. Innocent people fabricating crimes and naming others. Those others then do the same, and so on.
Another form of instrumental violence is to establish dominance.
In The Sopranos, after Tony recovers from a severe injury, he thinks his Mafia underlings sense weakness in him. He then physically attacks one of them to send the message to the others that he is still the top dog.
Domestic violence may also fall under the category of instrumental violence. Batterers are often men whose wives outrank them in some way, such as earning more money or having a better education. Moreover, men whose wives earn more money than themselves are more likely to be unfaithful. Both abuse and infidelity appear to be ways for these men to reaffirm their position in their relationships. A way of getting the upper hand.
Idealism: The Most Pernicious Cause of Evil
“The worst evils in history have always been committed by those who truly believed they were combating evil. Beware of combating evil.”
The second root cause of evil is idealism.
This is the most disquieting and tragic cause, because perpetrators are driven by the belief that they are doing something good.
In The Happiness Hypothesis, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt pointed out:
“Two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism…The major atrocities of the 20th century were carried out largely by men who thought they were creating a Utopia.”
Driven by idealism, and the belief that their actions are leading to something good, perpetrators believe they are obliged to commit harm.
To some degree, this overlaps with instrumental evil, or harm as a means to an end.
But idealists commit violence not to obtain money, or power, or other selfish rewards. Rather, they commit evil in their quest to improve society for others.
This is why idealism might be the most pernicious cause of evil.
As Baumeister writes, “When inflicting violent harm goes from being a right to being a duty, it is fair to expect that the violence will become relentless and merciless.”
In a twisted way, idealism uses people’s moral intuitions against them. If you harm someone to take their money, you might feel guilty, even if you needed the cash. But if you harm someone because you believe they are an obstacle to the gates of paradise, then any guilt is quelled.
This helps to explain how ordinary people became murderous in the regimes of the twentieth century. They believed themselves to be moral. And the more evil acts they committed, the more moral they believed themselves to be.
In The Status Game, Will Storr describes how communists in the Soviet Union were ordered to “throw [their] bourgeois humanitarianism out the window.” For those responsible for systematic mass murder, “status was awarded for actively suppressing human sympathy.”
Additionally, high moral principles reduce room for compromise. In fact, compromise itself is often seen as suspect.
Moral idealism leads to evil because good, desirable ends provide the justification for violent or oppressive means.
Committing mass murder might be unpleasant, but if in the end it’s for a good cause, then people will fulfill their duties.
The twentieth-century British philosopher Isaiah Berlin has written, “eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.”
Another facet of idealistic evil is how idealists view their victims. Sometimes perpetrators feel guilty about how they treat their victims. But idealism masks this feeling.
The logic is that if you think you are on the side of the good, then whoever opposes you must be your opposite. They must be evil.
To perceive them as anything less than that is to diminish one’s own side’s claim to be good. Thus, to maintain one’s image as good, it is necessary to see the enemy as evil. This quells perpetrators’ guilt, and they can continue inflicting harm against anyone they deem to be adversaries.
The book states, “idealists and utopians cannot easily acknowledge that their opponents have a legitimate, acceptable claim on being good themselves, because to do so would undermine their own claim to be on the side of the good.”
Idealistic perpetrators, full of self-righteous conviction, believe they have a license, or even a duty, to hate.
Furthermore, when dealing with fellow peers who might have doubts about the cruel methods, one feels morally confident to chide them for their insufficient animosity toward the evil enemies. After all, if the cause is virtuous, then one must hold the right attitude of hostility toward those standing in the way.
It is also necessary to be around people who constantly reaffirm the goodness of the cause, to subdue doubts about hurting others.
People need their beliefs and actions validated, especially when they commit violence.
Most people want to believe they are good. The more evil they commit, the more they require others to tell them they are not evil.
Relatedly, groups tend to be more violent than individuals. One reason is group polarization. That is, when people are around others who hold similar views to themselves, their own confidence in those views becomes stronger.
Thus, if each member within a group has mildly hostile feelings toward another group, those feelings will magnify as they interact with likeminded people. This is because doubling down on that opinion builds social bonds with fellow group members.
Baumeister also writes that groups tend to reserve their strongest hostility not for enemies, but for apostates:
“People who leave the group represent an even greater threat than its enemies. If other members were to interact with them, perhaps they would leave the group too, and the solidarity of the group would be undermined…Keeping the group together…is in many cases a more fundamental and urgent goal than accomplishing its stated purpose or defeating its actual external enemies.”
Often, the primary aim of social groups is to keep the group together. The group is more important than any particular mission. Any threat to cohesion is viewed as especially dangerous.
The book lists massacre after massacre, including the crusades, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, and the communist and fascist regimes of the twentieth century.
The general conclusion is that evil means do not result in noble ends. In fact, evil acts tend to corrupt the ideals they were meant to serve.
A notable example is the history of slavery and the devastation of indigenous cultures in the New World. The U.S. is, on balance, the best thing that has ever happened to humanity. But its ideals are overshadowed by its ugly history. People will forever be able to invoke slavery to challenge the legitimacy of the country’s original principles of freedom and equality. In the long run, the U.S. may be undermined by something that it practiced and abolished long before any person alive today was born.
Any human alive in 1776 would in many ways consider the U.S. today a kind of utopia. But building the utopia required a lot of death and devastation. In all likelihood, any other utopia people have in mind would likewise require a lot of unimaginable pain, with no guarantee the utopia would come into existence. In the case of the U.S., a kind of utopia did eventually arrive. But the practices it took to get there could lead to its undoing.
Evil tends to have unforeseen consequences, side effects, and backlashes that weaken or overturn the very ideals that the perpetrators hoped to promote.
“Once you know who or what humiliates you, you know what it is about yourself that you worship. Tell me what makes you enraged—what makes you feel truly diminished—and I will tell you what you believe, what you want to believe, about yourself.”
The third root cause of evil is threatened egotism.
The book cites several studies indicating that perpetrators of violence are often highly sensitive to perceived slights.
Baumeister writes, “Bullies, wife-beaters, tyrants, and other violent people tend to think that other people are attacking or belittling them, even when others would not have the same interpretation.”
Such people are hypersensitive to challenges to their self-image. And react with fury to any sign that someone is disrespecting them.
Among young boys, studies indicate that the most aggressive are those who are most likely to see hostility and aggression when it isn't really there. Hostile young males were prepared to see insults that did not necessarily exist.
The same seems to go for abusive husbands. For example, a man’s wife says, “I don’t know, that sounds really expensive.”
A vulnerable narcissist—more likely than average to experience threatened egotism—would think that she is implying he doesn’t earn enough money. Or that he isn’t succeeding in his career. Or that he is a failure as a man.
As Baumeister writes, “abusive husbands tend to think that their pride and dignity are being attacked whenever there is any disagreement or conflict.” Such men carefully scrutinize their wives’ behaviors for signs of assault on their own self-esteem.
People prone to overestimating the degree to which comments by others are insulting are more likely to lash out with narcissistic rage.
Importantly, the book reports findings from several studies which overturn the widespread belief that low self-esteem is a cause of violence.
In fact, violence is most often committed by those with high self-esteem. Baumeister cites research indicating that perpetrators of violence typically think highly of themselves.
Dangerous people, from playground bullies to gang leaders to warmongering dictators consist mostly of narcissists with positive self-images.
Egotistic people most likely to commit violence are those who feel that their favorable views of themselves are somehow threatened. They are prone to what some psychologists call “humiliated fury.”
There are two ways you can react to a negative evaluation by someone else.
One is to accept their assessment as correct, and revise your opinion of yourself downward. To think less of yourself than you did before.
Generally, people hate doing this. Lower self-esteem is often accompanied by depression, anxiety, and shame, which are unpleasant states people naturally want to avoid.
Second, you can reject their negative evaluation of you as wrong. But why would they say such a thing, if it’s so obviously incorrect? They must be unfair or unreasonably malevolent. Thus, it becomes more acceptable to inflict harm on them.
People who think they’re better than they really are will be more likely to commit violence, because the external world is not validating their own high opinion of themselves.
Baumeister describes how status inconsistency can give rise to violence.
For example, conventional wisdom dictates that housewives are more likely to be victims of violence than working wives. But research indicates that the opposite is true—housewives are especially safe from violence. Why? It seems that husbands are not threatened by their nonworking housewives. In contrast, as noted before, women who earn more than their husbands are often more at risk of violence.
Furthermore, men who have high qualifications but poor careers were six times more likely than average to commit violence against their wives. In contrast, men who had poor qualifications but successful careers were six times less likely to commit violence against their wives.
For men, doing worse than they expected is associated with greater hostility. While doing better than they expected is associated with greater calm.
Generally speaking, the most abusive husbands are those with little money, education, or other resources or signs of status. Shorter men report greater levels of jealousy and lower levels of relationship satisfaction than average.
Additionally, Baumeister reports research indicating that those least prone to hostility are those with high and stable self-esteem.
And the people most prone to hostility are those with high and unstable self-esteem. These people are more prone to shame.
Shame arises when people feel worthless and devalued. People who are especially vulnerable to shame are the most likely to react with hostility when their self-esteem is threatened.
This is because getting mad at others is a way of escaping the terrible feeling of shame.
It goes something like this: Someone says you’re stupid, or incompetent, or pathetic, or whatever. If you are prone to shame, you think maybe they are right, maybe you are a loser. You start to panic, and your heartbeat increases.
To break free of these feelings, you dismiss what they say and redirect your negative feelings about yourself toward the person insulting you. You unconsciously transform your intense emotions and fast heartbeat—your shame and panic—into anger at the other person. And then verbally or physically assail them. Which then quells the shame.
What about deep down inside? Maybe violent people are just pretending to have high self-esteem.
This seems unlikely. Multiple studies indicate that aggressive people have high opinions of themselves. To take a few extreme examples, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot were not suffering from a lack of self-esteem.
In more everyday cases of aggression, research repeatedly finds that bullies have higher self-esteem than average. And they find evidence of low self-esteem in the victims of schoolyard bullies.
Furthermore, studies of violent youth gangs find that gang members have high opinions of themselves.
“People with low self-esteem tend to blame themselves when things go wrong. People with high self-esteem tend to blame external factors, such as other people, the situation, or various obstacles.”
“Thinking that all your problems and failures are your own fault is a style that fits low self-esteem. Thinking that nothing bad should ever reflect on you is an integral part of high self-esteem.”
People have asked me how I avoided an unfortunate fate given my turbulent youth. I’ve cited a number of factors. But while reviewing this book, I distinctly recalled having extremely low self-esteem as a kid. I’d been rejected by so many parental figures that I figured I wasn’t worth caring about. In a kind of tortured logic that makes sense to children, I believed I’d done something wrong to have not been adequately cared for.
I did get into a lot of fights, because that’s what boys did where I grew up. But I seldom blamed anyone else for my unfortunate circumstances. My reluctance to place blame on anyone liberated me to take responsibility for myself.
The fourth and final cause of evil is sadism. This is about as close to “pure evil” as any of the causes get.
Sadism is sincere enjoyment from inflicting harm.
Baumeister writes, “The question of whether people enjoy harming others—and, if they do, the question of how much evil can be explained by this pleasure—is the single most elusive and vexing problem in the entire topic of evil.”
He concludes that the inconsistent and often contradictory evidence suggests that “sadistic pleasure is genuine, unusual, acquired only gradually, and responsible for only a minority of evil.”
The book delves into research on BDSM. Studies suggest that there are far more masochists than sadists. In fact, one common problem is that a person desires to play the role of the masochist but they have difficulty finding anyone to play the dominant role.
Thus, people with such preferences often have to pay prostitutes to take on that role. Other findings indicate that the desire to be spanked is far more common than the desire to spank someone.
Sometimes people laugh when they hurt someone. The book cites research indicating that “laughter is not a sign of pleasure or amusement but rather reflected some effort to cope with one’s distress as a pressure-filled, upsetting situation in which one was hurting someone.”
When perpetrators laugh, it is not typically out of enjoyment, but as a way to relieve their discomfort at the harm they are inflicting.
It is true, though, that some people come to enjoy hurting others. In most cases, this may be due to what is called “opponent process theory.”
Opponent process theory states that the body maintains homeostasis by counteracting any process that departs from its baseline.
Under intense stress, the body releases soothing and pleasant chemicals to return to normal (homeostasis). Over time, this feeling becomes addictive.
This is how people come to enjoy bungee jumping or skydiving. I’ve done both. The act itself is both terrifying and thrilling, but the feeling of coming back down from the rush is enjoyable.
I have read that people with bulimia experience something similar. They can become addicted to purging. Because although vomiting is unpleasant, the body’s restorative process afterwards feels soothing.
Baumeister suggests this happens with repeated acts of inflicting harm.
People unfamiliar with violence often feel physically unwell when they cause severe physical pain to someone else.
At first, people feel a sense of terror, anxiety, or disgust. The body then counteracts such feelings to restore itself to baseline. People gradually become addicted to this feeling.
With alcohol and drugs, the process is reversed. The initial process is pleasant, and the restorative process is unpleasant. Being drunk feels great, being hungover sucks. You enjoy the benefit now, and pay the cost later.
But with opponent process theory, the initial phase is nasty, and the restorative process is pleasant.
In this view, the pleasure of harming someone comes mostly from the restorative process, not the initial act. You pay the cost up front, and enjoy the benefit after.
As the book puts it, “The thrill of killing may be closer to the thrill of parachute jumping than to the thrill of taking drugs.”
Actual sadists are a rare minority. For them, power is the fundamental motive. Their need for power comes from the desire to have an impact on others.
Some people find validation in seeing others change their behavior because of them.
Baumeister is careful to note that power is not inherently bad. Influencing people to the good can be gratifying for powerful people.
But for sadists, they derive pleasure from using power to hurt others. When they inflict pain, the victim’s cries serve as validation of their own being, their importance, their power.
Baumeister quotes a torturer who states, “When we’re dealing with those tough ones, the first thing we do is make them squeal; and sooner or later, we manage it.”
To sadists, the victim’s resistance is a denial of their power, a way of refusing to acknowledge who is in control. The squeal is the victim’s acknowledgement of the power the torturers have.
Interestingly, the best sadists are those who can empathize with their victims.
As the book states, “the most extreme cruelty makes use of empathy. To be seriously, thoroughly cruel, it is necessary to know what the victim is feeling, in order to maximize the suffering…To hurt someone, you must know what the person’s sensitivities and vulnerabilities are.”
Cruel acts require an empathic understanding of what causes people pain. Empathy can be dangerous.
Many traits people view either positively or negatively are in fact morally neutral and can be used for good or evil ends. Intelligence, power, and empathy are examples. They can be beneficial or destructive, depending on how they are used.
Even resilience and mindfulness can be used for nefarious ends. Zen helped the samurai become more detached and efficient killers. Stoicism helped Greek warriors cope after committing atrocities in war. There is evidence suggesting that clinical therapy makes psychopaths worse because it allows them to rationalize their harmful actions. And there is research indicating that yoga, meditation, and other spiritual practices can sometimes make people more self-centered and narcissistic.
Human nature is often far more complicated than we think.
One Step At A Time
“First we will kill all the subversives; then we will kill their collaborators; then…their sympathizers, then…those who remain indifferent; and finally we will kill the timid.”
—Iberico Saint Jean (1976)
Saint Jean was a governor in Argentina during a period when the ruling class believed that their way of life was under attack.
They ordered the military to begin targeting their own citizens.
Based on this quote, Saint Jean was aware that large-scale evil is a gradual escalation of repression. Seemingly small beginnings can end in extreme violence.
Small, unremarkable, seemingly innocent beginnings can give rise to immense cruelty.
Contrary to the myth of pure evil, ordinary people can cross their own moral boundaries and commit horrific atrocities.
Jordan Peterson has written about this phenomenon in his essay, “Hell, One Step at a Time”:
“Tyranny grows slowly…Each betrayal of conscience weakens resistance, increases the probability of the next tyrannical move forward...particularly when a certain percentage of those pushing forward delight in the irresponsible power they have been granted.”
Ambiguity and Tacit Acceptance
When the line between right and wrong is obvious, most people will choose to do the right thing.
But when it’s not so clear, ordinary people are more likely to commit evil acts.
Evil begins when someone crosses a moral line. Therefore, anything that makes the line fuzzy or unclear can promote evil.
So ambiguity is a key factor in the escalation of violent acts.
Ambiguity is centrally involved in getting someone started in harming others.
Powerful people who want others to carry out their malicious desires understand this fact well.
It is easier for people in power to give commands that lead to harm if the orders are ambiguous. Because the authorities can later deny that they intended the ghastly outcomes.
But it’s not just powerful people. A crucial aspect of ambiguity is that it lets anyone justify and rationalize their actions. “I didn’t mean it.”
For example, many of the Nazi officials did not personally kill anyone. Thus, they could rationalize that they may have given the order, but tell themselves that they were not personally responsible.
The guards who carried out the actual murders can say they were “just following orders.” Thus, both leaders and followers have a ready-made justification for why they personally were not at fault.
Another way of getting people to cross the line is to keep them in ignorance as long as possible. When people don’t know what they’re actually doing, they can’t object to it.
If the instructions become clear only moments before the evil act is to be done, there is little time to protest.
In Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men, he describes how ordinary middle-aged, working-class German policemen were conscripted into action in Poland.
They thought they were just going to perform standard police duties.
The real truth was that their duty was to round up and kill civilians. The first time they had to do this, it was not revealed to them until the actual day of the event at 6 A.M.
Their major assembled the men and told them this act was to be carried out at once.
Had these men been told a month in advance, some might have objected. Or quietly tried to transfer to a different unit. But a blind surprise at six in the morning did not allow for this option.
The victims were also not told that this would occur. Both groups were kept in the dark.
The Nazi leadership had discovered that the most effective way to get one group of people to slaughter another was to avoid giving either side any advanced notice.
And after the first time these ordinary policemen committed a mass murder, each subsequent time became easier for them.
Dangerous ambiguities can become apparent in the absence of clear laws.
For instance, we in America take our Constitution and laws for granted. In the Soviet Union, judges operated without clear or explicit laws.
There was no clear set of written rules that judges could consult. But it was considered important to punish people who transgressed, despite the lack of a constitution.
Furthermore, some of the most important offenses were imprecisely defined, like counterrevolutionary statements or actions.
To be safe, judges erred on the side of severe sentencing, to avoid accusations of being an enemy by the regime.
Writing about the Soviet purges, the historian Robert Conquest documented how women were arrested for being “wives of enemies of the people.”
To the perpetrators, this made sense. After all, if someone marries a person who commits a crime and continues to love him anyway, then she herself is probably a threat.
In practice, many innocent women had no idea what their husbands were supposed to have done. Judges had no basis for deciding what sentence to give these women, and so they usually sent them to labor camps for 25 years, where many of them died.
The book states:
“The sort of instruction that is most likely to produce violent, oppressive, or evil measures consists of harsh but vague rules.”
This held true during the communist regime in Cambodia. There were no formal laws when the Khmer Rouge communists took over.
Local authorities did not have to justify who had been arrested or why.
Gradually, the people became aware that they were utterly at the mercy of the authorities. They lived in permanent fear that they might say the wrong thing and be executed. And they did not always know what the “wrong thing” was, because there were no written laws.
Thus, the authorities could make anything up and have anyone arrested or executed.
The role of ambiguity has also been used to send political dissidents to labor camps.
In the Soviet Union, psychiatrists believed that political dissidents, by definition, must be insane. Communists believed in the objective truth of their account of the world, and anyone who refused to go along was, by definition, out of touch with reality.
Still, other psychiatrists were more cynical. They told the authorities what they wanted to hear to get on with their jobs and advance their careers. They signed forms that condemned sane, healthy people to camps.
Ambiguity plays a role here because a close inspection of anyone’s life and mind can find evidence of abnormality, periods of impairment, or other signs of pathology. This ambiguity can make psychiatric diagnoses a powerful tool for political repression.
Another way evil starts is by getting people to accept the premises of the evil acts.
Baumeister illustrates this by first pointing out how, with the benefit of hindsight, many writers have asked why victims of the Holocaust so often cooperated with the Nazi regime.
Had everyone collectively resisted from the start, it is unlikely the regime’s plans would have gone so smoothly.
When faced with demands to comply, people who wanted to evade the camps often provided excuses that would be accepted as valid by the perpetrators.
For example, when people were told to show up at a train station at a specific time, few people said, “No, this is wrong and I refuse to comply.”
Rather, they would say, “I cannot go now because I’m working on such-and-such a job that is important to the war effort,” or “I am caring for my aging mother.”
The excuse about caring for their mother implicitly acknowledges that people can legitimately be sent to camps, and you are merely seeking exemption from the rules that you otherwise accept.
Obviously, they sought to provide excuses that would limit the likelihood of retaliation from the Nazis. Nevertheless, publicly accepting the legitimacy of the regime strengthened it.
Where Evil Starts
Many people believe that poverty breeds crime.
However, most poor people do not commit crimes. And there are plenty of rich criminals.
For every plausible source of crime, the vast majority of people exposed to the source are law-abiding. Most people who play violent video games don’t commit violence. Most people who were abused do not go on to abuse others. And so on.
Baumeister suggests that most crimes are due to a lack of inner discipline and restraint.
To promote violence, all you have to do is remove reasons to restrain it. This may have been what happened with the skyrocketing murder rates across the U.S. in 2020-2021.
As a side note, many people read findings from behavior genetics and misunderstand the research. For instance, they come away thinking “crime is all in the genes” or something. As if the environment and norms have no influence. But with the homicide rate spiking, it seems more likely that people are responding to shifts in the environment than genes changing in the last 18 months or so. Some people interpret behavior genetics findings to mean the environment is unimportant. I interpret them to mean certain aspects of environment matter even more. Norms and expectations and laws constrain differences between individuals. The absence of norms and expectations and laws magnifies them.
Anyway, returning to the book, what factors can reduce self-control?
One is a focus on the here and now.
To perceive that one is crossing a moral boundary into something that may be wrong, it is necessary to step back and think about one’s actions and moral principles.
Actions do not come with labels of right and wrong, and only acquire those moral qualities when evaluated with a more distant approach.
In other words, self-control requires us to see beyond the immediate situation. There is a tendency for people to shift into a present-focused mental state when carrying out evil acts.
For example, when violent criminals speak about what they did, they generally focus on the mechanics of their actions. With little emphasis on intentions, their language betrays a desire for moral exoneration.
The author and prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple has written about this phenomenon when interacting with inmates:
“As it happens, there are three stabbers at present in the prison who used precisely the same expression when describing to me what happened. ‘The knife went in.’
The knife went in—unguided by human hand, apparently.”
Sometimes people claim to have irresistible impulses, and lose control because they couldn’t help it. Many people speak as if certain provocations produce an unstoppable rage that makes their violent acts impossible for them to stop.
Baumeister is skeptical of this explanation, and I found his argument persuasive.
The book shares an account from an FBI expert who spent his career studying hundreds of murderers and serial killers. He notes that none of these criminals had ever murdered someone in the presence of a uniformed police officer. Such a murder would be foolish, of course. But if the impulse to kill were truly irresistible, it would not be deterred by threat of arrest.
“To me, ‘irresistible’ means that you would do it even if someone were aiming a gun at you and forbidding you to do it; and indeed people will eventually lie down or urinate despite such a threat…There are very few other impulses that are truly irresistible.”
Returning to the influence of media, research indicates that fictional portrays of violence have some influence on a small number of highly aggressive individuals.
Put differently, media violence seems to affect only people who are inclined toward aggression anyway.
This is consistent with Baumeister’s claim that most violence comes not from its promotion, but rather from a lack of constraints.
Most people do not commit violence when they see it. But for a small number of people, exposure to violence seems to reduce their already scarce levels of impulse-control.
Thus, in the aggregate, violent media has virtually zero effect on real-world violence. But it seems to have some nontrivial effect on a subset of the population.
Still, self-control sometimes fails to prevent violence. Once again, this appears to be due in part to ambiguity. When rules contradict each other, it becomes harder to the right thing, and easier to do the wrong thing.
For example, suppose you believe it is wrong to hurt or kill innocent people. But you are then told by the authorities that it is okay to inflict harm on a specific group who appears to be innocent.
You can deny that the authorities are correct. Or you can tell yourself that this specific group isn’t so innocent after all.
How Evil Spreads: Escalation
The biblical commandment “An eye for an eye” is a powerful concept.
It means that punishment and retaliation should be proportional. This does not seem to come naturally to humans.
Most people would prefer to inflict greater harm than they themselves suffered. If someone damages a person's eye, the person would prefer if their attacker loses two eyes.
This often leads to mutual escalation.
In the book, Baumeister quotes a gang member who flatly states:
“It’s like this. If you slap me, I’m gonna hit you with my closed fist. If you stab me, I’m gonna shoot you. An eye for an eye doesn’t exist—it’s one-up. One-up is what it is in gang life.”
One of the first factors that leads to escalation is desensitization.
As noted, the book Ordinary Men recounts policemen who gradually grew used to the mass killing of innocent people. Their ongoing evil deeds were not a moral and psychological shock to their systems the way their initial acts were.
Another important factor for the spread of evil is getting away with it.
Most people have strong inhibitions about committing harmful acts.
We tend to believe that participating in murder or torture would have immediate and immense consequences, not only for the victims but for ourselves.
But what happens if, somehow, someone does engage in a horrific act of violence, unbeknownst to anyone else?
Oftentimes, the disastrous personal consequences are not (immediately) apparent.
The world doesn’t end, the sirens aren’t blaring, and people do not instantly see the perpetrator in a new and disturbing light. Things go on pretty much as they did before.
Baumeister suggests that such a discovery can cause a profound shock. And may lead the perpetrator to have doubts about all those scruples, worries, and inhibitions they held before.
In short, perpetrators are often surprised to find how easily they can get away with such a repulsive act, and subsequently conclude that the reluctance they held before was overblown.
The absence of catastrophe can lead people to go even further.
Of course, often people do eventually have to pay the cost. But often people find they can commit a lot of harmful acts before they belatedly experience the psychological toll.
But escalation can also result not from the apparent absence of internal consequences, but also from external ones.
Baumeister shares reports of genocides and other mass killings.
Often, perpetrators of mass violence first commit some small but grisly act of violence and then wait to see if there will be some outcry, some protest, some international intervention. When the rest of the world does nothing, they go further.
At first, hostile regimes will merely restrict the civil liberties and benefits of their victims, usually as a way to punish or get revenge against them.
However, when the perpetrators are surprised at how little protest there is, they inflict even more severe sanctions. This, in some instances, eventually leads to mass murder.
At each step of the Nazi Holocaust, Hitler and his compatriots would pause to gauge world reaction. They were often stunned and encouraged by the lack of international outcry over their actions. They concluded from the world’s silence that everyone tacitly approved of what they were doing.
And, of course, sadism plays a role in the escalation of evil.
A small number of people commit violence for other reasons—instrumental, idealistic, etc.—and then, in the process, discover that they enjoy it.
Still, as Baumeister writes, “Sadism is rarely the original or driving force that initiates violence; it is not one of the major or common roots of evil.”
Only about 5 or 6 percent of perpetrators (who tend to be psychopathically-oriented) actually get enjoyment out of inflicting harm on others.
A fascinating paper titled “The False Enforcement of Unpopular Norms” found that:
“People enforce unpopular norms to show that they have complied out of genuine conviction and not because of social pressure...some groups may be more prone to unpopular norms because of individuals’ anxiety about being regarded as insufficiently sincere.”
In authoritarian regimes and violent groups, individuals often privately have doubts about the whole enterprise.
People publicly insist on strict adherence to the party line, while secretly questioning it.
People fake badness to get what they want nearly as often as they fake goodness to get what they want.
For their self-interest, people wear masks of malevolence nearly as often as they wear masks of benevolence.
People in such situations often do everything they can to avoid the appearance of questioning the movement’s repressive measures.
They make stronger and stronger statements about the need for harsh measures, because such statements kept them safe from the potential accusation of lacking the proper attitudes.
Writing about The Terror following the French Revolution, Baumeister reports:
“Ironically, the leaders’ fear of one another caused them to become ever more violent, even draconian, with the result that they all really did have more to fear. And one by one, most of them were killed by the Revolution over which they were presiding.”
A group can come to commit violent acts that reflect a hatred that is more intense than any of its members actually feel. Because each of them is trying to convince the others that they really do support the cause.
Dealing with Guilt
“Guilt? It’s this mechanism we use to control people. It’s an illusion. It’s a kind of social control mechanism—and it’s very unhealthy. It does terrible things to our bodies. And there are much better ways to control people than…guilt.”
A lot of people would agree with this quote. It’s a widely-held opinion that guilt is a wasteful and destructive emotion that does more harm than good.
The quote is from the infamous serial killer Ted Bundy.
Perhaps if Bundy had a stronger sense of guilt, some of his victims would still be alive.
Guilt is the distress that comes from hurting other human beings.
Baumeister discusses the role of guilt in preventing violence. A lot of guilt is backward-looking in that people experience it after doing something bad.
But it’s also forward-looking in that people usually know in advance what acts will make them feel guilty, and they try to avoid such actions.
This is the valuable social function of guilt—it anticipates harmful acts and prevents people from committing them. Guilt “punishes” people for committing such acts, reducing the likelihood they’ll do them again.
How do people deal with guilt?
One way is through rationalizations. Often, the mental gymnastics people perform to justify their evil acts are preposterous.
For instance, the book shares astonishing rationalizations by a metalworker who got through the day killing Jewish children during the Nazi Holocaust:
“I reasoned with myself that after all without its mother the child could not live any longer. It was supposed to be, so to speak, soothing to my conscience to release children unable to live without their mothers.”
The book reports that the word the man used (“released”) translates into German as a word connoting redemption and salvation. This allowed the man to believe he was performing an act of grace by committing murder.
Again, most people want to believe they are good, no matter how evil their actions are.
Baumeister suggests two reasons for people’s bizarre justifications.
1. The perpetrator strongly wants to believe them
2. They are superficially plausible
There’s a similar story from the Rwandan genocide. During the killings of the Tutsis, a Hutu woman named Juliana, herself a mother of six children, “rounded up the children of fellow villagers they perceived as enemies and bludgeoned the stunned youngers to death with large sticks.”
“They didn’t cry because they knew us,” she said. “They just made big eyes. We killed too many to count.”
She claimed she was doing the children a favor, since their fathers had been slaughtered and their mothers had been taken away to be raped and killed. So, she claimed, they were now orphans who faced a hard life.
The two key components of rationalization were likely present. There was some vestige of plausibility that the children were doomed anyway, so the quick death spared them from additional suffering. And the perpetrators had a powerful desire to believe there was something good about what they were doing.
People will search for any vaguely plausible argument when they badly want to justify their evil actions.
The majority of people believe their justifications. To dismiss them as hypocrites or deluded fools misses the point, which is that people want to believe they are good.
Most people who commit atrocities do so because they think they are doing the right thing.
Perpetrators do not want to see the holes in their feeble rationalizations. To do so would require them to accept the horror of what they have done.
Still, this self-deception isn’t bulletproof. As Baumeister writes:
“People can only stretch the facts and evidence to a limited degree. Groups, however, have several advantages in this regard, because they can support each other’s beliefs. When one is surrounded by people who all believe the same thing, any contrary belief gradually seems less and less plausible.”
The more evil people commit, the more powerful their desire to be told they are not committing evil.
Formal procedures give the impression of legitimacy, which helps to allay guilt.
Some years ago I visited the Oranienburg concentration camp in Germany. I learned that Nazi guards needed some kind of “reason” to murder prisoners. Even though many of the prisoners were already marked for death, guards couldn’t just randomly kill them whenever they wanted.
They had to adhere to a formal policy. Strictly adhering to procedure and rules gave the illusion that their acts were legitimate.
Same for Soviet victims. Their captors also adhered to a twisted formality, with the show trials conducted during Stalin’s purges.
Many of the oldest and most distinguished Bolsheviks were fingered by Stalin for elimination. Indeed, their very eminence made them a threat to Stalin. In his eagerness to eliminate any possible rival, he ordered the execution of many of the Soviet regime’s best and brightest, as well as ordinary citizens.
Additionally, in Maoist China, communists were obsessed with extracting confessions of guilt. They would put people through brutal torture to get them to admit their supposed transgressions.
If anyone died during these torture sessions, the communists would mark on their death certificate that they were class enemies, as though their lack of confession throughout the torture confirmed their guilt.
What these examples demonstrate is that even the most ruthless and powerful men in the world could not simply kill their enemies, rivals, and victims without some plausible explanation.
Hitler, Stalin, and Mao had to furnish some pretense of legality and adherence to procedure.
Sometimes authoritarian regimes provide tangible benefits to their adherents. The book cites Hannah Arendt’s observation that a purge is great for a young person’s career, as long as he or she is not one of the victims. Purges create job opportunities.
If half of the top officials at a firm are sent to prison, one result is a large number of job openings. Younger men and women are promoted faster than they would have expected.
Still, when the next purge comes, many who rose so rapidly will find it is their turn to be arrested. People generally do not realize how arbitrary and malicious such purges are until it is their own turn.
The most important point of the book is that most people who commit evil believe themselves to be good.
The aim of this book is to understand the psychological of perpetrators of violence, so that we can reduce the likelihood of inadvertently becoming one.
By learning about evil, we discover that many violent acts are caused by motives that seem quite ordinary.
Which should encourage us all to be wary whenever we have seemingly reasonable justifications for coercing or hurting other people.
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