The Psychology of Evil

Week of: 
July 17, 2011
What is it: 

True evil seems easy to recognize: the killing of innocent children; assigning whole populations to death by gassing, or napalm, or aerial bombing.  These acts go beyond the criminal, the mean, the bad.  But what is the psychology of evil-doers?  Are they monsters among us just like the rest of us, with one screw a little loose, or are they radically unlike us?  John and Ken probe the evil mind with Simon Baron Cohen from Cambridge University, author of The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty.

Listening Notes: 

John and Ken start by trying to get their heads around the concept of evil itself. They begin by considering evil actions and move on to evil people, but each time they end up with the same unsatisfying and circular conclusion: that, in its simplest form, evil is about doing ‘bad’ things and that people do ‘bad’ things because they’re evil. But who decides what is bad? Is there some universal ‘evilness’ inside us that can be measured?

Professor Baron-Cohen offers one solution with his ideas of ‘empathy.’ ‘Evil,’ or as he likes it, ‘empathy erosion,’ can actually be measured, both directly through brain scans, as well as through cognitive testing. What he finds is that the level of empathy we have is normally distributed in the population.

Does that mean some people are naturally more evil than others? Professor Baron-Cohen argues that ‘evil’ is an unhelpful term to use in this context, because it carries philosophical connotations outside the realm of science. A better term would be ‘cruelty,’ which denotes actions carried out with diminished empathy. He says that a propensity for cruelty is indeed found in some people more than others, but not necessarily in direct proportion to our levels of empathy.

To demonstrate this, he cites the example of autism. Whilst both psychopaths and those with autism are severely lacking in empathy, it is only the former who are inclined to act cruelly. Autistic people tend instead to withdraw from action.

In our society we treat severe autism as a disability. Should we apply the same logic to psychopaths? The final segment of the show deals with how we should apply the theory of empathy to our lives. Are we really justified in punishing psychopaths for killing? Is it better to have more or less empathy? Can we develop empathy? Tune in to find out.

  • Roving Philosophical Reporter:  Caitlin Esch finds out how empathic her friends are, using a test developed by Professor Baron-Cohen himself. She discovers that although most people think they have a great degree of empathy, they tend to overestimate themselves. She is joined by Psychiatrist Thomas Lewis.
  • Sixty Second Philosopher: This week our Sixty-Second Philosopher provides us with a terrifying tale about why you should never trust your boss…  

Simon Baron Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology, Cambridge University

Related Resources: 


Arendt, Hannah Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil The Viking Press (1963)

Baron-Cohen, Simon The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty Basic Books (2011)

De Waal, Fran The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society Crown (2009)


Melvyn Bragg Talks about Evil on BBC Radio 4.

Stueber, Karsten, "Empathy," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Test your empathy quotient in the test designed by Simon Baron-Cohen.

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John Perry and Ken Taylor

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