Psychologists have devised two new scales for assessing people’s belief in pure evil and pure good – characteristics they say have important links with broader attitudes towards altruism and the use of violence.
Russell Webster and Donald Saucier first demonstrated the validity and reliability of their scales with over two hundred undergrad students. The belief in pure evil questionnaire contains 22 items including “Some people are just pure evil” and “people who commit evil acts always mean to harm innocent people”, each rated on a sliding 7-point scale of agreement. The belief in pure good questionnaire has 28 items including “There is such a thing as a truly selfless/altruistic person” and “selfless people help anyone in need, even their rivals.”
Scores on the two scales are entirely uncorrelated suggesting they are measuring distinct constructs. Scores were also stable over time, based on re-retesting a subsample of participants two months later. Belief in pure good, but not belief in evil, was associated with stronger religiosity.
Most revealing is the other attitudes and beliefs that went hand in hand with high scoring on the two new measures. Tests with over 400 students found that a strong belief in pure evil went together with more support for the death penalty, for torture, preemptive state aggression, reactive state aggression (if the USA were threatened by Iran), and racial prejudice, alongside belief in a dangerous and vile world, less support for criminal rehabilitation, and opposition to proracial policies and social programmes.
Belief in pure good tended to coincide with more empathy, a preference for diplomatic solutions and humanitarian wars, support for reactive aggression (if Iran threatened any of its own neighbours or threatened the USA), support for some prosocial programmes (for children), but less support for torture, and less belief in a competitive jungle world.
Webster and Saucier said the reality of pure evil or pure good was irrelevant to their research. Their intention was to establish the implications of a person holding beliefs in these concepts. The researchers also noted that they were not making any judgment of people who adhere to either of these beliefs. “It is likely that people scoring higher [in belief in pure evil or good] want to better the world – that is, they have good intentions – however, they differ on how to create a better world,” the researchers said.
The study has a number of limitations, as the researchers acknowledge. All the subjects were drawn from the undergrad population at a Midwestern University in the States. There’s a large military base nearby, which may have played a part in influencing participants’ attitudes. Also, note the study is correlational and doesn’t show that a belief in pure good or evil causes any of the other beliefs or attitudes. Finally, future research is needed to test how these belief constructs relate to people’s actual behaviour, not just their attitudes.
“Ultimately, some people believe that there are ‘angels’ and ‘demons’ in this world,” the researchers concluded “and such beliefs do meaningfully impact people’s prosocial and aggressive orientation toward others.”
Webster RJ, and Saucier DA (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 PMID: 23885037