Are You Capable of Evil?

In comic books the concept of evil is a very straightforward one. You have the good guys and you have the bad guys, and the bad guys are uniformly ‘evil’ individuals who spend their time trying to take over the world or building giant lasers.

In reality, the concept of ‘evil’ is a lot more ambiguous with many shades of grey. Your interpretation of evil will depend on your views, and very few of us will think of ourselves as ‘evil’ by our own definitions – we tend to do what we think is right even when that idea is very misguided in the eyes of others. There are some things that we all agree are ‘evil’, but then again while the action might be ‘evil’ that doesn’t mean necessarily that the person is either. Murder is generally frowned upon, but if the culprit has a mental disorder that renders them unable to judge situations and make the right decisions… then are they really evil themselves or just victims?

More to the point, few people are uniformly ‘evil’ all the time. Rather they have ‘moments’ of evil and moments of good. Even Hitler was probably very good to his dog ‘Goldie’…

This all begs the question then… could you be capable of evil? Could you ever be driven to murder? Or to building a giant death ray on the moon? The answers may surprise you…

The Milgram Study

One of the most famous psychological studies on this topic was carried out by a psychologist called ‘Milgram’ and looked specifically at the role of social influence on affecting behaviour. In the study, Milgram created a scenario in which he had participants act as ‘testers’ for unseen individuals who they believed would be taking part in a maths test as part of a study into learning. Every time one of the unseen ‘testees’ got an answer wrong, the participants were instructed to administer an electric shock of increasing voltage. This would go on until the point where the testers would be issuing shocks capable of killing, and the people in the next room would be screaming out in agony and begging them to stop (of course these were actors who were not really receiving shocks). If the participants showed discomfort, then the psychologists running the experiment would encourage them to continue.

Amazingly, the vast majority of participants in the study continued to administer shocks for the duration of the entire experiment – and continued even when the participants stopped responding or making any noise. Only very few made any real protestations or called the experiment to a halt.

Analysts have since explained the results in a number of ways and suggested that the results were caused by a trust for authority, along with feelings of social pressure and susceptibility to the ‘incremental’ nature of the voltage increases (‘what harm can five more volts do?’). Ultimately though, this study seems to demonstrate that average people just like us would be willing to put someone’s life in serious jeopardy under the right circumstances – and many other studies have yielded similar results. In the famous ‘prison study’ by a psychologist called ‘Zimbardo’, it was shown that when put in a potion of power, most of us will abuse that power to the detriment of those in more vulnerable positions who we tend to ‘dehumanise’.

Real World Examples

Of course these studies can do a lot to explain certain events throughout history, and in particular the reason that Nazi soldiers (and arguably all soldiers – without getting political) were willing to do such atrocious things during World War 2 despite having been regular citizens beforehand.

But this still doesn’t necessarily mean that you are capable of evil. For one, Milgram’s study was carried out a long time ago when most of us were less well informed and more easily swayed by authority figures (though the study has been successfully replicated on numerous occasions since then). At the same time, the fact that some people were able to stand up to the experimenters and call an end to the study shows that there are people out there with a stronger moral compass: which could be you.

And anyway, how likely are you to end up in that position?


More to the point though, even in that position you could argue that the participants weren’t being ‘evil’ – they were simply scared, misguided and overly trusting. The same could be said of Nazis who underwent a lot of conditioning prior to their experiences and who were generally in fear for their lives. The question is not whether you could become a Nazi, but whether you could become Hitler…

And here the question really comes down to your ability to act coldly and without emotion or empathy. Hitler’s misguided views led him to view the world in a twisted way, but it was his lack of empathy that allowed him to kill millions of people. It seems that all of us are born with empathy as a natural part of our psychological makeup, and many evolutionary psychologists have speculated that this is crucial to allow for the development of species and social groups. Without empathy we would all just eat one another and humanity would die out (this is supported by many studies that show altruism in the animal kingdom). And of course it’s not just ’empathy’ that helps us all to get along either we also have feelings like love, guilt, friendship and respect that all help to provide the glue for social interactions.

And this then suggests that to be truly capable of ‘evil’, you would have to be lacking in these particular emotions.

‘Born Evil’?

For those of you who know your DSM-V (I’m just showing off now for the psychology students among you – it’s a reference for psychologists used to diagnose psychological conditions), this pretty much describes the personality disorder ‘psychopathy’ – which is strongly tied to genetics and heritability. So are some people just ‘born’ evil?

Well, first of all, no – because our personalities aren’t entirely defined by our genetics, but also because psychopathy does not necessarily equate to evil either. In fact it’s an often-quoted fact that many high-achieving businessmen and women could technically be defined as psychopaths according to the clinical diagnostics. But they’ve never killed anyone, and they probably still have a number of friends – so can we call them evil?

It would seem then that psychopathy makes you more capable of evil, but that it also takes a series of twisted views in order to end up actually carrying out any ‘evil’ actions (though you’d probably need to know right at wrong at least in order to be able to be held accountable for your decisions – it’s a fine line). As usual it’s the old chestnut of genetic predisposition coupled with environmental factors that might push you over the edge.

But before you think yourself safe, it’s worth noting that brain trauma and some diseases can rob you of your sense of morality and empathy. Though seeing as you probably don’t have those warped views either the chances of you turning into Hitler are still pretty slim…

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Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki is a full time writer who spends most of his time in the coffee shops of London. Adam has a BSc in psychology and is an amateur bodybuilder with a couple of competition wins to his name. His other interests are self improvement, general health, transhumanism and brain training. As well as writing for websites and magazines, he also runs his own sites and has published several books and apps on these topics.

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