As binge-worthy as watching Narcos last weekend was, it left me grappling with the question of why some people are so evil in society. What was it that made Pablo Escobar ruthlessly murder innocent civilians in a bid to take out anything that stood in the way of expanding his drug empire? In fact, it’s not just leaders who play the card of evil, but also their followers who will blindly follow them even if they find their methods questionable. Here are some psychological explanations for different types of evil:
Dictators that wiped out millions
Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, and Joseph Stalin are just a few of the dictatorial leaders who went on a killing rampage resulting in millions of casualties to further their supposedly ‘noble’ goals. For Hitler, it was a freaky obsession with racial purity involving the need to exterminate six million Jews, and for Pol Pot, it was the extreme communist drive of creating an agrarian society that effectively killed 25% of Cambodia’s population.
One common psychological trait that has repeatedly been found in evil leaders is narcissism. Narcissistic individuals often have an excessive sense of self-importance, grandiosity, a striking lack of empathy, and a chronic sense of entitlement. In other words, they have an extremely binary worldview of right and wrong, and will do anything possible (even mass genocide) to achieve their goals. It’s no surprise then that evil leaders are also very charismatic and appealing: Hitler systematically used propaganda to sway the German masses into believing that he was a divine figure and the key to solving Germany’s problems.
Behind every successful (evil) leader is a strong follower(s)
Evil leaders rarely ever execute their masterplans alone: behind the scenes are a devoted group of followers hatching the final blow. Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience is a powerful testament to the violent consequences of blindly following authority. Volunteers, who were unknowingly playing the role of a teacher, were instructed to administer a bogus electric shock to a ‘learner’ whenever they got the answer to a question wrong. Despite hearing the fake screams of the ‘learner’, more than 65% of participants went on to administer the highest level of electric shock by simply being pressed to continue.
Milgram’s experiment goes to show how even ordinary people can be moved to commit acts of evil under command, and shares parallels with some Nazi officials who were believed to have simply followed orders at the helm of their fanatic leader without questioning what they were doing. The idea of blindly following what we are told is even more pertinent in the modern age of fake news where ideas can be indoctrinated at the click of a mouse.
Explaining criminal behavior
Criminal behavior has ravaged some societies from the very core, whether it’s in the form of repeated sexual violence or gang wars. Accordingly, criminal psychology has developed into a full-fledged field of research seeking to question why crimes happen. One of the earliest explanations comes from Sigmund Freud’s psychodynamic perspective, which postulates that violent behavior is the product of “unconscious” forces operating within a person’s mind. These forces may be unleashed from early exposure to traumatic childhood experiences which then lead to aggressive impulses later into adolescence.
Behaviour theory posits that all human behaviour – including violent behaviour – is learned through interaction with the social environment. Studies have found, for example, that people who live in violent communities learn to model the aggressive behaviour of their neighbours (Bartol, 2002).
Lastly, cognitive theory focuses on how intellectual and moral reasoning links to crime and violent behavior. Studies have repeatedly found that people who obey the law simply to avoid punishment (i.e., out of self-interest) are more likely to commit acts of violence than those who recognise and sympathise with the fundamental rights of others. In other words, the higher the level of moral reasoning individuals have, the less likely they are to engage in crime.
From the explanations above, it’s clear that the psychology of evil is not just one-dimensional. Understanding the psychology of evil warrants a multi-pronged approach that acknowledges how biological, cognitive, and social factors can all interact with one another to produce certain behaviors in society, which then has profound implications for the way law treats perpetrators of wrongdoing.