Whether you believe in such a thing as “pure evil” — that there are individuals inherently predisposed to intentionally harming others — can fundamentally change how you see the world. Strong belief in pure evil, for example, has been linked to increased support for the death penalty, torture, and racial prejudice.
Now a new study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, has looked at the link between belief in pure evil and the attributes we ascribe to perpetrators of violence. Focusing on mass shootings in the US, the team once again finds a relationship between belief in pure evil and harsher approaches to punishment.
Participants were randomly assigned to read one of four articles from USA Today, all of which they believed were real, about a mass shooting at a shopping mall. Two of these articles mentioned that the shooter had a brain tumour, and contained a fictitious quote from a neuroscientist explaining how the tumour may have affected the shooter’s behaviour. The other two noted that the perpetrator’s brain scan looked normal.
The articles also differed in how the shooter’s behaviour and traits were described. In the “stereotypically evil” condition, the shooter stated that they had enjoyed the act, while a quote from a security guard described the perpetrator as “smiling, smug… like he got some thrill out of doing it”. In the “non-stereotypically evil” condition the security guard described the shooter as seeming “distressed” by his actions.
After reading the article, participants wrote a small passage explaining why they felt the shooter had perpetrated his crimes. They then rated how confident they were that his actions were caused by his personality, or by environmental factors; that he was in control; that his actions were deliberate; and that he should be blamed or held responsible for his actions. Participants also completed a measure of dehumanisation (responding to statements like “The perpetrator is emotionless”).
They then provided their recommendation for different types of punishment (e.g. community service or the death penalty), and indicated how long they felt the perpetrator should be in prison for, or whether or not they should be executed. Finally, participants completed a scale measuring their belief in pure evil.
People with higher levels of belief in pure evil were far more confident about the reasons for the shooter’s actions, and were more likely to attribute his behaviour to his personality. These participants were also more likely to advocate for harsher punishments, up to and including the death penalty. The analysis also suggested that those who believed in pure evil punished the perpetrator more because they felt he was personally liable, because they had dehumanised him, and because they felt greater levels of retribution.
Overall, participants in the stereotypically evil condition were also more likely to ascribe the act of violence to personality than to environmental factors. Those who read that the shooter had a tumour, on the other hand, advocated for lower levels of punishment and were less likely to blame personal factors. However, people who believed in pure evil tended to support harsh punishment whether or not they read that the perpetrator had a tumour, suggesting that believers in pure evil are generally unmoved by these sorts of considerations.
The team notes that the direction of causality between belief in pure evil and retribution is unclear — that is, we may have developed and bought into the idea of pure evil to justify our inherently retributive instincts rather than the other way around. It would also be interesting to explore narratives about pure evil in the realms of media and politics. Cultural differences could change the relationship between beliefs and punishment: in countries where politicians frequently invoke severe punishments or tend to ignore environmental factors in crime, for example, is there a generally higher level of belief in pure evil than in those areas where this isn’t the case? Future research could probe this further.