- Julia Shaw’s new book “Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side” takes a look at some of the topics people shy away from.
- It also tackles some of the subjects we most want to talk about.
- She explains dark personality traits, murder cases, pedophilia, and much more.
- Shaw told INSIDER that opening up the conversation about “evil” can help us empathise, which is turn could help prevent the worst imaginable criminal acts.
- By shutting down the debate, she said, we are doing ourselves a disservice.
At a glance, Julia Shaw and I probably wouldn’t strike you as two people who would spend an hour discussing murderers and pedophiles. But that’s what we did when we met to talk about her new book “Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side,” which comes out next week.
Perhaps one of the most important points the book makes is that we should reconsider our use of the word “evil,” and start opening up conversations about the possible reasons people commit some of the worst crimes imaginable.
“We all think we’re good people, and it’s the other people who are potentially evil,” said Shaw. “That’s, arguably, a massive cognitive distortion or at least a favourable bias towards ourselves.”
Something Shaw addresses a lot is the “monsterisation” of people, and how we generally dismiss criminals for what they have done, thinking they are different to us and therefore evil or wrong.
But in her work on false memories – people who incorrectly confess to crimes – Shaw increasingly found that quiet often, monsters can be made out of nothing.
“When you’re accusing an innocent person of doing something horrible and they internalise that and they start to believe it themselves, you’re fundamentally changing that person’s identity,” she said. “And they themselves might think they’re capable of what we would call ‘evil.'”
Societal pressures and improper interrogations can lead to false confessions and create criminals out of thin air, she said. “Sort of a pseudo-perpetrator, if you will.”
Sometimes, though, people are guilty of the things they are accused of. Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, killed 17 men and boys between 1978 to 1991, but also kept parts of their bodies afterwards. Ted Bundy raped and murdered at least 30 women and girls from 1974 to 1978.
These people, and many more like them, were inarguably troubled and made some terrible decisions. But Shaw argues the root of actually tackling terrible things in the world is starting to understand why they do it in the first place. It’s not as simple as labelling someone “crazy,” “a psychopath,” or quite simply “evil.”
It’s not as simple as labelling someone “crazy,” “a psychopath,” or quite simply “evil.”
“We have these labels, and we have these opinions, and we’re passionate about them,” she said. “But then there’s a sort of lack of depth. How do we dig deeper in a way that we don’t feel like we’re going to get shamed for showing empathy or sympathy for offenders?”
Some things we just don’t want to face
Something that people find incredibly hard to talk about is pedophilia. The idea someone is sexually attracted to children is hard to separate from the heinous crime of child sex abuse. But in reality, not all pedophiles offend.
“Even just the idea that someone is thinking about or fantasising about sexual contact with a child is so off-putting that a lot of people are unwilling to even talk about that,” Shaw said. “This person has done nothing in the real world, they have only kept it in their brains, and even there we struggle to accept this as a possibility.”
Pedophiles are our uncles, our brothers, our sons, and friends, she said. They don’t come out of nowhere. In a Medium article from 2014, for example, young pedophiles shared their stories of having nobody to turn to – neither friends or mental health professionals – because the risk of being ostracised was just too high.
“If you fundamentally think these things are terrible or evil you’re going to be tough on crime and just punish, punish, punish,” Shaw said. “You’re choosing to monsterise rather that saying people need help. We need to protect our kids, but they only way we’re going to do that is by actually offering proper support to people.”
Shaw said it’s crucial we don’t just talk to each other about taboo subjects, but also try and gain understanding into the mindset of what people could be going through. Dahmer, for instance, said he kept parts of his victims because he didn’t want them to leave.
Loneliness, of course, isn’t an excuse for pouring hydrochloric acid into someone’s brain to try and create a sex zombie out of them. But tackling the problems of isolation may play a part in minimising the chance these things happen.
“I think we need to humanise,” Shaw said. “So if someone says pedophiles are evil, or this particular kind of act is evil, or whatever it is people are talking about, ask them what they mean by that. Ask them what does that mean to you, and you can start teasing apart what they’re actually talking about.”
Sympathising with serial killers may be too much of a wild starting point for many people. So another place to look into is our own psyche.
Did you know, for example, somewhere between 31 and 57% of women admit to having rape fantasies? And that as many as 73% of men and 60% of women have fantasised about murdering someone?
“Even if you’re not acting or doing the things that, say, a murderer does, realising that gradient and realising that you could potentially slip through it quite quickly I think is really powerful,” said Shaw. “And it makes it much, much harder to externalise these issues and [say] they have nothing to do with me.”
Dark thoughts are there for a reason
There’s also an evolutionary advantage to playing through horrific acts in your mind, which may come as a comfort to those who don’t understand their darkest thoughts.
Shaw explained that it’s an adaptive quality because it allows you to realise the actual repercussions of doing something. For most of us, we realise we don’t actually want to follow through with a brutal murder because the consequences wouldn’t be worth it. It’s a little like the more banal areas of life, when you’re preparing for a presentation or a pitch and you run through the most likely scenarios and questions you might face.
“It’s the same when we escalate this tenfold and go up to murder fantasies,” said Shaw. “You think it through, probably like internal venting.”
When you look at actual murder, it’s likely to be more based on impulse. So in a way, fantasies are helpful to prevent us from doing harm.
“I think it’s really easy to suffer in silence and not understand yourself and not understand what those thoughts are,” Shaw said. “For me it was important to show ‘look, this is a normal piece of humanity, you can chill out, you’re not broken.'”
Among the “smorgasbord” of other ideas Shaw discusses in her book are cute aggression, modern slavery and sex trafficking, dimorphous emotions, and zoophilia. She also talks about personality disorders like psychopathy and narcissism, and the problems these labels can have on our understanding of other people.
Shaw said “psychopath” in particular is often used as a synonym for evil, which she has a massive issue with.
“[It] can monsterise individuals, so they can be used specifically with the purpose that this person is different to quote normal people,” she said. “My PhD supervisor used to routinely call psychopaths monsters, and that’s just such a non-scientific thing to say. Monsters aren’t real, that’s not a thing, they can’t be monsters.”
There are certain predispositions, such as a lack of empathy, that could make it easier to hurt others. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they will. In fact, most psychopaths don’t kill or even think about hurting others.
“Things are just complicated, and there’s nuance and that’s awesome and that’s interesting,” Shaw said. “And we need to stop trying to simplify everything down into one thing, because nothing happens because of one reason.”
We need to stop trying to simplify everything down into one thing, because nothing happens because of one reason.”
The human brain has been proven to be a lot more flexible than it was thought to be in other points in history. This is why Shaw believes anyone who says that people can’t change in any psychological dimension are “full of s–t.”
“It’s just wrong,” she said. “People are not static. There are so many reasons why over the course of 80 years, or 90 years, or 100 years, or 20, depending on how long you live, you are going to change.”
Jennifer Skeem, for instance, works with people other therapists have written off. She believes psychopathy is a misunderstood condition, and has shown through her work that even those with the highest scores on measures of psychopathy can reduce their violent and criminal behaviour after mental health counseling and drug abuse rehabilitation.
Shaw’s argument is this: wouldn’t it be better for everyone if we all realised humans are capable of horrible things, but the way to be prepared for them is to face them, and not hide behind vague, misrepresentative labels like “evil” that dismiss the humanity of a whole range of people? As she says in a Ted Talk, “how would you like to be judged for the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
A bit like a disaster backpack containing a torch, a blanket, and photographs of your loved ones, Shaw hopes her book serves as a sort of mental preparation kit for the things we’re scared of.
“It’s hard to get over your own emotions, so I think you have to head on tackle your fears and inform yourself about them, so that’s what I did,” she said. “And I take people along for the ride.”
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