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Ideas | Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Why a little evil is good — and a lot of empathy is bad

Adobe/Globe Staff

Halloween is the one night of the year when we’re allowed to be just a little evil. But, say some scientists, it’s not just on Halloween that we give ourselves permission to be bad. It was the “everyday sadism,” the pleasure that people find in others’ pain, that struck psychologist Delroy Paulhus, who studies evil professionally.

The head of a University of British Columbia research lab that examines “dark” personality traits, Paulhus was part of a team of researchers who in 2002 identified the “dark triad,” three distinct antisocial personality traits: narcissism, or aggressive self-promotion; Machiavellianism, the desire to manipulate those around you; and callous, self-aggrandizing, impulsive psychopathy.

In 2013, based on research that came out of his lab, the trio was joined by a fourth — “everyday sadism.” In a set of experiments led by Erin Buckels, a scientist in Paulhus’s lab, participants were asked whether they’d rather kill bugs, help an exterminator kill them, clean toilets, or plunge their hands in ice water for 60 seconds. Fifty-three percent of the respondents said they’d either kill the bugs or help the exterminator; those who elected to kill the bugs, some 26.8 percent, were then presented with three woodlice — named Tootsie, Muffin, and Ike — and a coffee grinder (unbeknownst to the participants, the bugs were shielded from a crunchy death by a plastic insert over the blades). Not only did the 26 percent “kill” some or all of the bugs, but some of them also professed to enjoy it.

The team found similar results when the experiment involved causing discomfort to humans. Participants were asked to play a computer game against an opponent they believed was in another room. When they won, they had the chance to “blast” their opponent with a noise, the strength of which they could control. Many of us, the study confirmed, were willing to blast the other person with a loud noise; sadists, meanwhile, not only made it louder, but were also willing to complete a boring task in order to do so. People went out of their way to harm others — a finding that caught Paulhus off guard.


“The impulsive selfishness of psychopaths, self-adoration of narcissists . . . those were relatively well-known, well-established. We all know people who fit into those categories,” he explained. “It was sadism that in a way surprised us a little more — the fact that it’s there in front of our faces, but it’s normalized to such a degree that people don’t notice it.”


It’s not clear how many people gravitate toward the dark end of the personality spectrum, but it may be a lot. In July, researchers in Copenhagen found that dark tendencies — and they added “egoism” and “spitefulness” to the list — share a common “dark core.” That is, if you have one of these traits, you probably also exhibit one or more of the others.

But why? Well, for one thing, it might actually be useful.

The idea of evil, of what constitutes a violation of moral law in a perpetually shifting ethical landscape, has pre-occupied people for millennia. Now, however, we have more tools — psychology, neuroscience, genetics — to examine what makes evil. The last half-century of evil research shows that most of us have the capacity to be really evil.

“With things like murder, I think we overestimate the amount of evil that needs to go into these acts,” said University College London psychologist Julia Shaw, author of the forthcoming book “Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side.” The mysticism around evil keeps people from seeing themselves as potential perpetrators, she says, but most evil behavior results from bad decisions made quickly by relatively normal human beings. “All of us are probably capable of doing quite terrible things.”

For one thing, we all possess the instinct to dehumanize other people. Dehumanization is an area of study that picked up steam after World War II — the famous Milgram experiments, for example, explored how trust in authority could easily override qualms about hurting other people, and studies through the 1970s demonstrated that dehumanization plays a key role in mobilizing groups for mass killings. Some researchers, Dr. Philip Zimbardo of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment included, see dehumanization as the basis for human evil. And recently, experiments have shown that the tendency to “blatantly dehumanize” is both powerful and easy.


One study from 2017 demonstrated that “ordinary” people can easily become Internet trolls, and the likelihood doubles if they’re in a bad mood and are exposed to other trolls. And the instinct to enjoy other people’s pain even when those people are blameless remains strong – as “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” now in its 29th season, amply demonstrates.

This is not learned behavior. One study from 2013 found that children as young as 4 years old experienced schadenfreude, the thrill of glee at another’s person’s misfortune; this was especially acute when they believed that the individual was somehow at fault for this misfortune. Another study from this year demonstrated that 6-year-old children would rather spend money on watching an antisocial puppet be punished than spend it on stickers. The instinct to dehumanize people who are not in our group? That manifests as early as 5 years old, according to one study, and has also been observed in 9- to 13-year-olds.

In other words, the kind of behavior that we say we condemn is not solely the province of violent predators and others whom we call evil. It is part of all of us. We ship with it.


There are times, however, when a little evil is helpful. Consider again what’s now the dark tetrad — Machiavellianism, narcissism, psychopathy, and everyday sadism. That these traits are so widespread suggests that bad has its evolutionary purposes.

Being a little evil is a potentially useful mating strategy, at least in the short term — a 2014 study seemed to confirm that women actually are attracted to jerks. The study asked 128 women to rate the attractiveness of made-up male characters; the women consistently rated men with higher dark triad personality characteristics as significantly higher than men with lower ones, despite physical appearance remaining constant. Another study, this one from 2016, found that narcissistic men had more success at speed dating; among women, psychopathy also correlated with short-term mating appeal. In their 2014 article on the taxonomy of dark personalities, Paulhus and his colleagues suggested many people prefer to engage with a dark personality over someone tedious — a “live volcano” versus a “dead fish.”

There is more evidence, too, that these dark traits are rewarded in other ways. Narcissists perform well in job interviews. People with Machiavellian tendencies find success in the boardroom or in leadership positions. As journalist Jon Ronson famously discovered in his 2011 book, “The Psychopath Test,” the incidence of diagnosable psychopathy was around 4 percent among CEOs of major companies, quadruple what it’s assumed to be in the general population. A 2018 meta-analysis in the Journal of Applied Psychology demonstrated a small but real link between psychopathy and leadership emergence — meaning that we are somewhat more likely to follow people who exhibit psychopathic traits.

Even taking pleasure in others’ pain could be evolutionarily adaptive: Some research suggests that wartime sadism might inhibit the development of post-traumatic stress disorder. In civilian life, everyday sadists might have their place, Paulhus and his colleagues have suggested, in professions where someone needs to be the punisher. “If the end justifies the means, you have to be able to cut corners and do nasty things even to gain the most prosocial of goals,” Paulhus said. “If you just sit on your couch and be the perfect human being, you’re useless in terms of making change to society and getting things done.”


And what about the persistent ability to dehumanize? Even that can have its uses. One study from 2013 found that stressed out nurses needed to dehumanize their patients in order to cope with the rigors of the job. More than that, “humanizing a patient’s suffering positively predicted symptoms of burnout” — meaning that the more nurses empathized with their patients, the worse they felt and quite possibly, the worse they were at their job.

A willingness to be seen as evil may even be an engine of social progress. Shaw’s example is the fight for LGBTQ rights: In recent history, and in some cultural settings still, sexual difference has been treated as a deep transgression of long-held social norms. Being willing to challenge the norm has meant increased rights for a marginalized community. “That ability to break the rules can lead to problem solving,” she noted.

Our definition of evil behavior is a moving target, but one thing is true: We’re not always terrible. We form societies and organizations to protect and support the most vulnerable. We decry, loudly and often on social media, acts of violation and depravity. Many of us actively agitate against war, intolerance, bigotry. And no matter what the news cycle makes us believe, we are becoming less evil. The cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker famously argued that we are getting better in his 2011 book “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” As society bent itself towards civilization, as it accrued the benefits of trade, commerce, technology, and education, he says, violence decreased.

What puts the brakes on evil behavior, according to researchers, is empathy. The quality of being aware of another person’s feeling and emotions is widely touted as the antidote to evil. Yet it is not an unalloyed good. Dr. Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, made a case for examining the cultural obsession with empathy as the root of all good in his 2017 book, “Against Empathy,” arguing that “on the whole, it’s a poor moral guide.”

In one example Bloom cites in his book, researchers in a 1995 study told subjects about a 10-year-old girl, Sheri, suffering from a fatal disease. Sheri was on a waiting list for a treatment that could help her, but she’s far down the list and there were other children in front of her. Participants were told that they could move Sheri to the top of the list. Those who were simply asked if they’d move her said she’d have to wait. But those who were invited to first imagine how she might feel, to empathize with her, tended to move her up. Empathy led participants to make an unfair, emotionally based decision that would have disadvantaged the other children. In Bloom’s own experiments, he’s found that the more empathetic people are, the more they push for harsher punishments for people responsible for suffering.

Empathy, in other words, is an imperfect mechanism. As for evil, there is nothing so special or monstrous about people who do bad things; we “normal” people are capable of the same. So why are we becoming less evil? We’re becoming less evil not just because we have and encourage compassion and kindness for others — those books on empathy come from a well-meaning place — but also because we know we have a tendency to be evil. “Being aware of the nasty side allows us to put controls on it, while realizing that it’s not going to go away,” said Paulhus. We could pretend that we’re all innocents, he argued, but it’s better to be aware.

Knowing this means that we ought to be more careful when we apply the label. The othering of evil makes us blind to the evil in ourselves — and to the humanity in the people we are calling evil.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American freelance writer living in London.