Surveys show that a staggering percentage of Americans believe in a literal Satan, and even more believe in the idea of a sort of disembodied evil. Piercarlo Valdesolo at Scientific American looks at some psychological research on how those beliefs affect our views on other issues.
The issue of whether “pure evil” exists, however, is separate from what happens to our judgments and our behavior when we believe in its existence. It is this question to which several researchers have recently begun to turn. How can we measure people’s belief in pure evil (BPE) and what consequences does such a belief have on our responses to wrong-doers?
According to this research, one of the central features of BPE is evil’s perceived immutability. Evil people are born evil – they cannot change. Two judgments follow from this perspective: 1) evil people cannot be rehabilitated, and 2) the eradication of evil requires only the eradication of all the evil people. Following this logic, the researchers tested the hypothesis that there would be a relationship between BPE and the desire to aggress towards and punish wrong-doers.
Researchers have found support for this hypothesis across several papers containing multiple studies, and employing diverse methodologies. BPE predicts such effects as: harsher punishments for crimes (e.g. murder, assault, theft), stronger reported support for the death penalty, and decreased support for criminal rehabilitation. Follow-up studies corroborate these findings, showing that BPE also predicts the degree to which participants perceive the world to be dangerous and vile, the perceived need for preemptive military aggression to solve conflicts, and reported support for torture.
Regardless of whether the devil actually exists, belief in the power of human evil seems to have significant and important consequences for how we approach solving problems of real-world wrongdoing. When we see people’s antisocial behavior as the product of an enduring and powerful malice, we see few options beyond a comprehensive and immediate assault on the perpetrators. They cannot be helped, and any attempts to do so would be a waste of time and resources.But if we accept the message from decades of social psychological research, that at least some instances of violence and malice are not the result of “pure evil” — that otherwise decent individuals can, under certain circumstances, be compelled to commit horrible acts, even atrocities — then the results of these studies serve as an important cautionary tale. The longer we cling to strong beliefs about the existence of pure evil, the more aggressive and antisocial we become.
But this is not necessarily an either/or situation. Some people probably are irredeemable and can only be locked up to keep others safe, but that does not result from anything to do with the devil or with this weird concept of evil existing as a thing in and of itself. It’s the result of mundane epigenetic influences. And their irredeemable nature as an adult could well have been averted at some point early in life given the right circumstances.
The thing that bothers me about belief in Satan or “pure evil,” other than the obvious fact that they just don’t exist, is that they offer a simple answer to much more complex questions. It’s a convenient way to explain away things that bother us but it doesn’t actually offer anything in the way of genuine understanding or potential solutions. It’s a form of irrationality that we simply can’t afford.