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Psychology Personality


The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side

by (author) Julia Shaw

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Feb 2019
Personality, General, Personality Disorders
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2019
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An original and scientifically rigorous exploration of the darkest recesses of the human mind.

What is it about evil that we find so compelling? From our obsession with serial killers to violence in pop culture, we seem inescapably drawn to the stories of monstrous acts and the aberrant people who commit them.

But evil, Dr. Julia Shaw argues, is all relative, rooted in our unique cultures. What one may consider normal, like sex before marriage, eating meat or being a banker, others may find abhorrent. And if evil is only in the eye of the beholder, can it be said to exist at all?

In Evil, Dr. Shaw uses case studies from academia, examples from popular culture and anecdotes from everyday life to break down complex information and concepts such as the neuroscience of evil, the psychology of bloodlust and workplace misbehaviour. In grappling with thorny dilemmas--from "Would I kill baby Hitler?" to "Why do I want to murder my spouse?"--Dr. Shaw offers readers a better understanding of the world, ourselves and our Google search histories.

About the author

Contributor Notes

DR. JULIA SHAW is a senior lecturer in criminology and psychology at University College London. Born in Germany and raised in Canada, she has an MS in psychology and law and a PhD in psychology from the University of British Columbia. She is a regular contributor to Scientific American.

Excerpt: Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side (by (author) Julia Shaw)


The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in 1881: ‘Böse denken heißt böse machen’ – thinking evil means making evil. Only when we assign something the label ‘evil’, only when we think that something is evil, does it become so. Nietzsche argued that evil is a subjective experience, not something that is inherent to a person, or object, or action.

This book explores some of the science behind this sentiment, ranging across a spectrum of concepts and notions that are often associated with the word evil. It is a study of human hypocrisy, the absurdity of evil, ordinary madness and empathy. I hope to challenge you to rethink and reshape what it means to be bad.

Over the past thirteen years, as a student, lecturer and researcher, I have enjoyed discussing the science of evil with anyone who is willing to listen. What I like most is destroying the fundamental conceptualisations of good and evil as black and white, replacing them with nuance and scientific insight. I want us all to have a more informed way of discussing behaviour that at first we feel we cannot, and should not, begin to understand. Without understanding, we risk dehumanisingothers, writing off human beings simply becausewe don’t comprehend them. We can, we must, try to understand that which we have labelled evil.

Let’s start by doing an evil empathy exercise. Think about the worst thing you have ever done. Something that you are probably ashamed of, and that you know would make other people think less of you. Infidelity. Theft. Lying. Now imagine that everyone knew about it. Judged you for it. Constantly called you names arising from it. How would that feel?

We would hate for the world to forever judge us based on the acts we most regret. Yet this is what we do to others every day. For our own decisions we see the nuances, the circumstances, the difficulties. For others we often just see the outcome of their decisions. This leads us to define human beings, in all their complexity, by a single heinous term. Murderer. Rapist. Thief. Liar. Psychopath. Paedophile.

These are labels bestowed on others, based on our percep­tion of who they must be, given their behaviour. A single word intended to summarise someone’s true character and to disparage it, to communicate to others that this person cannot be trusted. This person is harmful. This person is not really a person at all – rather some sort of horrible aberration. An aberration with whom we should not try to empathise because they are so hopelessly bad that we will never be able to understand them. Such people are beyond understanding, beyond saving, evil.

But who are ‘they’? Perhaps understanding that every single one of us frequently thinks and does things that others view as despicable will help us to understand the very essence of what we call evil. I can guarantee that someone in the world thinks you are evil. Do you eat meat? Do you work in banking? Do you have a child out of wedlock? You will find that things that seem normal to you don’t seem normal to others, and might even be utterly reprehensible. Perhaps we are all evil. Or, perhaps none of us are.
As a society, we talk about evil a lot, and yet we don’t really talk about it at all. Every day we hear of the latest human atrocities, and superficially engage with constant news chatter that makes us feel like humanity is surely doomed. As journalists often say, if it bleeds it leads. Concepts that elicit strong emotions are distilled into attention-grabbing headlines for newspapers and shoved into our social-media feeds. Seen before we get to breakfast and forgotten by lunchtime, our consumption of reports of evil is phenomenal.

Our hunger for violence in particular seems greater now than it ever has. In a study published in 2013 by psycho­logical scientist Brad Bushman and his colleagues which examined violence in movies, they found that ‘violence in films has more than doubled since 1950, and that gun violence in PG-13 films [12A] has increased to the point where it recently exceeded the rate in R-rated films [15]’. Movies are becoming more violent, even those which are specifically for children to watch. More than ever, stories of violence and severe human suffering permeate our daily routine.

What does this do to us? It distorts our understanding of the prevalence of crime, making us think crime is more common than it actually is. It impacts who we label evil. It changes our notions of justice.

At this point I want to manage your expectations regarding what this book is about. This is not a book that dives deep into individual cases. Whole books have been dedicated to specific people who are often referred to as evil – like Jon Venables, the youngest person ever to be convicted of murder in the UK and labeled by the tabloids as ‘Born Evil’, or serial killer Ted Bundy in the US, or the ‘Ken and Barbie killers’, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, in Canada. These are fascinating cases, no doubt, but this book is not really about them. It is about you. I want you to understand your own thoughts and proclivities more than I want to pick apart specific examples of other people’s transgressions.

This is also not a philosophical book, a religious book, or a book about morality. It is a book that tries to help us understand why we do terrible things to one another, not whether these things should happen or what the appropriate punishments for them are. It is a book filled with experiments and theories, a book that tries to turn our attention to science for answers. It tries to break down the concept of evil into many pieces, and to pick up each one to examine it individually.

This is also not a comprehensive book about evil. A life­time would be insufficient for such a task. You may be disappointed to learn that I will spend almost no time discussing crucial issues like genocide, abuse of children in care, children who commit crime, election fraud, treachery, incest, drugs, gangs or war. If you want to learn about such issues, there are many books out there for you, but this isn’t one of them. This is a book that seeks to expand on the currently available literature and bring in the unexpected. This book provides an overview of important and diverse topics related to the concept of evil that I think are fasci­nating, important, and often overlooked. 

Before we slip into the science of evil, let me explain who I am and why you can trust me to walk with you through your nightmares.

I come from a world where people hunt monsters. Where police officers, prosecutors and the public collectively take their pitchforks and search for murderers and rapists. They hunt because they want to maintain the fabric of society, to punish those who are perceived to have done wrong. The problem is that these monsters sometimes don’t actually exist.

As a criminal psychologist who specialises in false memories, I see cases all the time where people search for an evil perpetrator even though no transgression has actually taken place. False memories are recollections that feel real but are not a representation of something that actually happened. They sound a bit like science fiction, but false memories are all too common. As false-memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus has said, instead of being an accurate record of the past, memories are much like Wikipedia pages – they are constructive and reconstructive. You can go in there and change them, and so can other people.

In extreme situations our memories can end up so far from reality that we can come to believe that we have been the victim or witness of a crime that never took place, or that we perpetrated a crime that never happened. This is something I have studied directly in my lab. I have hacked people’s memories to, temporarily, make them believe they did something criminal.

But I don’t just study this in the lab. I also study it in the wild. I sometimes get mail from prisoners. These letters are quite possibly one of the most interesting things I receive by post. One letter came in early 2017. The letter was written eloquently with beautifully legible handwriting, both of which are rather unusual characteristics for a prison letter.

It explained that the sender was in prison because he had stabbed his elderly father to death. He hadn’t just stabbed him once though; he had stabbed him fifty times. The perpetrator was a university lecturer at the time of the murder, with no criminal record. He’s not the kind of guy we would expect to go around stabbing people.

So, why did he do it? I was startled when I learned the answer to this. The reason for the letter was to ask me to send him my book on false memories, as it ‘was not yet available at the prison library’. He had seen it mentioned in The Times, and said that he wanted, he needed, to know more about this area of research. The reason he wanted to know more was that he had come to realise, while in prison, that he had killed his father because of a false memory.

Here’s what he claims happened. While undergoing treat­ment for alcoholism, it had been suggested to him that one thing that explains alcohol dependence is a history of child­hood sexual abuse. He had it repeatedly suggested to him by therapists and social workers that he must have been abused. While he was undergoing therapy, he was also the primary carer for his elderly father. He was exhausted. One evening, while taking care of his father, he claims that the memories all rushed back. In anger, and as an act of revenge, he committed the murder. Once in prison he realised that these events never actually happened, and that, instead, he had been led to falsely believe and remember a terrible childhood that never was. He’s now sitting in prison, not denying the act, but having difficulty understanding his own brain, his own behaviour. He had thought, for a period of time, that his father was evil. He then committed a terrible crime. If we believe his version, can we really say that he is evil?

I sent him my book, and in return he sent me a letter and a painting of a pink flower. I keep it on my desk. It’s a reminder to me that through research and science commu­nication we can give understanding and humanity back to a group that is too often deprived of both.

It is easy to forget that the complexity of the human experience does not stop just because an individual has committed a crime. A single act should not define a person. Calling someone a murderer because they once made a decision to murder someone seems inappropriate, oversimplified.

Convicts are people too. For 364 days of the year a person can be completely law-abiding, and then on the 365th they can decide to commit a crime. Even the most heinous convicted criminals spend almost all of their time not commit­ting crimes. What do they do the rest of the time? Normal human stuff. They eat, they sleep, they love, they cry.

Yet it is so easy for us to write off such people and to call them evil. And this is why I love doing research in this area. And it’s not just memory that fascinates me in understanding how we create evil. I have also done academic work on the topics of psychopathy and moral decision-making, and I taught a course on evil where I explored topics as diverse as criminology, psychology, philosophy, law and neurosci­ence. It is at the intersection of these disciplines that I believe the true understanding of this thing we call ‘evil’ lies.

The problem is that instead of facilitating such under­standing, heinous crimes are generally seen as more of a circus show than something we should try to understand. And when we do try to lift the curtain to see the humanity behind the exterior, others often stop us from taking a good look. Discussing the concept of evil is still largely a taboo.


When attempts at empathy and understanding are made, there is often a particularly vicious utterance that is used to shut them down; the implication that some people should not be empathised with, lest we imply that we too are evil.

Want to discuss paedophilia? That must mean you are a paedophile. Mention zoophilia? So, you are saying you want to have sex with animals. Want to talk about murder fanta­sies? You are clearly a murderer at heart. Such curiosity-shaming tries to keep a distance between us and the people who are perceived to be evil. It’s ‘us’, the good citizens, versus ‘them’, the baddies. In psychology this is called ‘othering’. We other someone when we view or treat them as inherently different to ourselves.

But such a distinction is not only adverse for discourse and understanding, it is also fundamentally incorrect. We may think that our labelling of others as evil or bad is rational, and our behaviour towards such individuals justified, but the distinction may be more trivial than we expect. I want to help you explore the similarities between the groups of people you consider evil and yourself, and to engage with a critical mind to try and understand them.

Our reactions to deviance may ultimately tell us less about others and more about ourselves. In this book I want to encourage a curiosity, an exploration of what evil is and the lessons we can learn from science to better understand humanity’s dark side. I want you to ask questions, I want you to be hungry for knowledge, and I want to feed your hunger. Come with me on a journey to uncover the science of your living nightmares.

Let me help you find your evil empathy.

Editorial Reviews

National Bestseller

"Curious readers will be riveted by Shaw's deliberate, rational discussions of such taboos as cyberbullying, homicide, pedophilia and the ways money and power corrupt the souls of formerly good men and women. . . . A consistently fascinating journey into the darker sides of the human condition that will push on the boundaries of readers' comfort zones." —Kirkus Reviews
"Shaw presents a stimulating and provocative challenge to the traditional meaning of evil." —Library Journal

"Evil covers a wide range of subjects, from the creepiness of clowns and collectors to sexual deviance to the dark side of tech. Shaw undermines long-held beliefs about the universality of moral judgments for certain acts with more recent research, such as the supposed connection between testosterone and aggression. Her primary theme is that the concepts of violence and evil are much more complex than we realize, and before we judge we must always consider the context. . . . Provocative." —Psychology Today
"Julia Shaw has crafted a brilliant panorama that elucidates humanity's dark side in her masterpiece, Evil. This science-based foundation for studying the minds of sadists, mass murderers, freaks and creeps, as well the new role of tech in promoting evil is presented in a totally engaging fashion." —Philip Zimbardo, author of The Lucifer Effect

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