A recent study explored the thought processes that explain why people who believe in pure evil tend to support harsher punishment for criminals. The researchers found evidence that people who believe in pure evil more strongly dehumanize perpetrators, see them as more liable for their actions, and hold stronger feelings of retribution toward them. The findings were published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.
People tend to label those who purposefully harm others as inherently bad people with bad personalities. Yet not everyone ascribes to this belief to the same degree. In fact, psychology researchers Russell J. Webster and his colleagues designed a scale to specifically measure the extent that a person believes that evil people are “just pure evil.” The scale is aptly named the Belief In Pure Evil Scale (BPE).
“This research line was really inspired by Roy Baumeister’s book, “Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty,” a fantastic read,” explained Webster, who is an associate professor of psychology at Penn State Abington College.
“He has a whole chapter on belief in pure evil and how labeling others as evil has justified horrendous violence and prevents us from really getting to roots of lessening violence by providing an over-simplified explanation for why people do bad, even ‘senseless,’ things. However, Baumeister did not create a validated scale to measure belief in pure evil to better substantiate his theorizing, and that’s where we filled in the gap.”
Studies have shown that people with greater scores on the BPE tend to propose harsher punishment for criminals, even when presented with a possible explanation for the criminal’s behavior (e.g., a brain tumor that can cause aggression). In a new study, Webster and his team wanted to explore the thought processes behind this persistent effect.
The researchers had 302 American participants read one of four fictitious news articles describing a mall shooting. The articles differed in two key ways. Firstly, the perpetrator was either described as having a healthy brain scan result or as having a brain lesion that may be associated with aggressive behavior. Secondly, the perpetrator was either portrayed as stereotypically evil (e.g., “He was smiling, smug like, like he got some thrill out of doing it.”) or non-stereotypically evil (e.g., “He wasn’t smiling, he seemed distressed by what he just did.”).
After reading the article, each subject was asked to respond to various items addressing their attributions of the shooter’s behavior, their perceptions about the shooter’s character, and their recommendations for punishment. They also completed the Belief In Pure Evil Scale.
In line with previous research, participants who read the article that described the shooter as stereotypically evil felt the shooter was more liable for his actions and more harshly demonized him and punished him. Also in line with existing findings, those who read that the shooter had a brain tumor viewed him as less liable for his actions and demonized him less.
Notably, those with higher BPE scores felt the shooter was more liable for his actions. They also more strongly demonized him, dehumanized him, and endorsed greater retribution toward him. Moreover, mediation analysis found that perceptions of greater liability, dehumanization, and retribution mediated the link between higher scores on the BPE and endorsement of punishment.
As Webster and his colleagues wrote in their study, “It seems people who believed more in pure evil punished the perpetrator shooter more because they felt the shooter was more liable for his actions, more greatly dehumanized the shooter, and felt greater retribution toward the shooter.”
Moreover, when presented with opinion pieces about the news story, participants with higher belief in pure evil showed a stronger preference to read pieces that corresponded with the notion of pure evil — suggesting a confirmation bias where those with greater BPE favored information that confirmed their belief in pure evil.
“I think our body of research, including this study, shows that when a person does something really terrible, including mass shootings, people who strongly believe in pure evil (or after portraying someone as evil), they don’t think as deeply about the causes for the bad behavior. Such people think, ‘These bad guys are evil, always will be. Nothing can change that. Lock ‘em up, throw away the key — or even execute them,” Webster told PsyPost.
“Even when there is a biological explanation outside of the perpetrator’s control (i.e., brain tumor), people who strongly believe in pure evil still dehumanize and punish perpetrators more harshly. This belief puts blinders onto people’s thinking, it seems. It’s not that someone wakes up and suddenly shoots up a workplace or a mall; there was a series of events that culminated in that terrible action. A ‘good’ person, given a series of unfortunate events, can do terrible things.”
“So, our research raises questions about what we do in response to such terrible events — how we choose to punish or rehabilitate offenders, how we legislate and make changes to our criminal justice system, and even how we heal/forgive after such terrible events,” Webster said.
Webster and his team noted that it would be interesting to explore how people with higher BPE react to more ambiguous crimes, such as crimes that may be construed as accidental. The authors also acknowledged that their study cannot establish causality and that longitudinal studies or experiments that manipulate BPE will be important next steps.
“Of course, we would love to replicate these findings with real criminal cases and juries in a courtroom, but that is difficult to do,” Webster said. “We are beginning, though, to collect data on BPE for each US state to see if BPE predicts more “real-world” outcomes like incarceration rates, prison sentences (especially for violence offenders), stand-your-ground laws, hate crimes, etc. We would also like to replicate these findings cross-culturally. Baumeister and others have argued that the notion of evil is not just an American or Western concept, but more of a universal one. But validating scales in other languages and running studies in other countries is a huge undertaking.”
“We encourage people to visit YourMorals.org so you can complete the BPE (and belief in pure good) scales, as well as other fascinating scales about morality and politics,” he added.
The study, “Demons with guns: The effect of belief in pure evil on attributions of gun violence perpetrators,” was authored by Russell J. Webster, Dominic Vasturia, and Donald A. Saucier.