Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
Are these examples of pure evil? Anders Breivik bombed buildings in
2011 killing eight people, then shot 69 others, mostly teenagers.
He showed no remorse and took pride in his actions. In May 2013,
three women and one six-year-old girl were rescued from kidnapper,
Ariel Castro, having been held in captivity for around a decade in
the USA. Following over 900 criminal counts, he killed himself just
one month into a prison term of 1,000 years.
Psychologists Russell Webster and Donald Saucier have just
published the most comprehensive scientific investigation into our
beliefs over whether unadulterated wickedness exists. One
interpretation is that accepting the existence of 'Pure Evil',
reveals the true nature of deepest malevolence itself.
Those who believe in 'Pure Evil' consider bad or criminal behaviour
is wilful, conscious and driven primarily by the wish to inflict
harm, merely often for pleasure.
The psychologists, based at North Central College and Kansas State
University in the USA point out that the 'Belief in Pure Evil'
holds profound consequences for believers. As there would be no
point in being patient, tolerant and understanding, when confronted
with unalloyed villainy, then the only response should be
eliminating such evil-doers, even if extreme actions are
If you believe in 'Pure Evil', you also deem that evil-doers will
implacably continue being dangerous. This necessarily follows if
certain culprits are indeed the embodiment of undiluted
viciousness. On both sides of conflict, if each sees the other side
as 'evil', this inevitably results in reciprocal and escalating
prejudice with violence.
Perhaps scientists had been reluctant to study evil before because
it seems religious, yet Russell Webster and Donald Saucier point
out that cultures all over the world and throughout history, have a
surprisingly similar "personal archetype of evil". This includes
the conviction that "behind evil actions must lie evil
Their study entitled Angels
and Demons Are Among Us: Assessing Individual Differences in Belief
in Pure Evil and Belief in Pure Good, focused on the shape of
malevolence in people's minds. The research found beliefs over the
existence of 'Pure Evil' could reveal key aspects of character.
The series of investigations involving hundreds of participants
found believing that others can be completely immoral, in turn
leads to more aggressive plus hostile attitudes and behaviour.
Believers in the existence of 'Pure Evil' are more pessimistic
generally, see the world as a more vile and dangerous place, are
more opposed to equality, endorse torture, the death penalty and
pre-emptive military aggression.
Believers in 'Pure Evil' consider that trying to understand evil is
futile, because 'Pure Evil' is a deeply ingrained part of
character, and understanding will only foster greater empathizing
with perpetrators, condoning their harmful behaviour.
This most comprehensive investigation, to date, into our views on
deep malevolence, published in the journal Personality
and Social Psychology Bulletin, also found 'Belief in Pure
Evil' was not associated with being religious.
Instead another conviction - the 'Belief in Pure Good' was. It
appears from this study that those who believe in 'Pure Good' are
fundamentally different from those who believe in 'Pure Evil'.
Believers in 'Pure Good' accept the existence of pure altruism,
that some people, though rare, intentionally help others just for
the sake of helping, with no personal benefit or hidden agenda.
They also judge that even the most ghastly perpetrators - ie
wayward criminals, can see "the error of their ways" and reform, ie
they are not 'Purely Evil'. Those who more strongly believed in
'Pure Good', supported criminal rehabilitation and opposed the
Those who score higher in 'Belief in Pure Good' are more likely to
believe that doing good means not harming others (unless one's
country or allies are directly endangered). People scoring higher
in 'Belief in Pure Evil' feel that pre-emptive violence and
aggression are justified to root out evil-doers.
'Belief in Pure Good' was associated strongly with being religious,
as well as those reporting more secular volunteering. The authors
speculated that 'Belief in Pure Evil' and religiosity were not as
strongly associated as might be expected, because organized
religions may recently be downplaying the role of battling evil.
But perhaps the sample studied did not contain enough evangelical
or fundamentalist participants.
Believing strongly in 'Pure Good' was related to less aggression,
supporting diplomacy over violence as an approach to foreign
affairs, and being against torture.
Russell Webster and Donald Saucier point out that part of the
belief in 'Pure Good' is that it surely cannot be corrupted by the
forces of evil. 'Pure Good' can resist temptations over joining the
"dark side" (using 'Star Wars' terminology).
Yet apparent do-gooders like Mother Theresa and Gandhi, may have
had their reputations tarnished in recent years by various
re-evaluations, casting doubt that both these characters, (and many
others apparently 'Purely Good'), were in fact as virtuous as first
This modern drive to doubt that 'Pure Good' really does exist,
could have grave and far-reaching implications, in terms of our
pessimism about each other.
Doubting 'Pure Good' exists may justify people's apathy over
helping others: If 'everybody is selfish', then theoretically we
need not feel guilty about our own self-interested behaviour, or
endeavour to be more helpful.
Believers in 'Pure Good' tended to think more deeply about the
causes for other's behaviour, while believers in 'Pure Evil' scored
significantly lower on this.
So, do you know of selfless good work epitomizing pure good
("angels")? Or are you aware of others who because of their selfish
hostility appear to display pure evil ("demons")?
If you believe 'angels' and 'demons' live amongst us, that pure
good and pure evil exist, this conviction has just been found by
this research to profoundly influence your own behaviour and
outlook on life.
If you believe in 'Pure Evil' it seems you are not convinced 'Pure
Good' exists - perhaps because you suppose it will be overcome by
'Pure Evil'. If you feel there is 'Pure Good', then it appears you
tend not to accept 'Pure Evil'; maybe you consider 'Pure Good' will
triumph over 'Evil'.
If you believe in 'Pure Evil' you are more likely to react
aggressively to wrong-doing, while if you deem 'Pure Good' exists,
you're more optimistic about human nature, and believe that the bad
can change, supporting programmes that see the better side of
One interpretation of this study is that Believers in 'Pure Good'
and 'Pure Evil' end up behaving a bit like the angels and demons
they perceive as existing in the world.
We become the very Demons and Angels we think exist.
We make them come true.