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YOUR INNER SADIST: THE NEUROSCIENCE OF EVIL
On pain, pleasure and psychopathy
When We Talk about evil we tend to turn our attention to Hitler. This is perhaps unsurprising, as Hitler perpetrated many of the acts that we associate with evil, including mass murder, destruction, war, torture, hate speech, propaganda and unethical science. History, and the world, will forever be stained with his memory.
A nod to the pervasiveness of our automatic connection between general badness and Hitler is even reflected in everyday human interactions. In disparaging discussions, people who say or write things that others disagree with are often described as 'Nazis' or 'like Hitler'. Godwin's Law suggests that every online comment thread will eventually lead to a Hitler comparison. These in-passing comparisons trivialise the atrocities committed, escalate discussion to a point of no return, and often effectively shut down conversation. But, I digress.
Because of the variety and depth of the devastation Hitler was both directly and indirectly responsible for, entire books have been written about his motivations, his personality and his actions. People have long wanted to know why, and how, he became the man we know from the dark pages of our history books. In this chapter, instead of dissecting the particulars of his actions, I want us to focus our attention on just one question: if you could go back in time, would you kill baby Hitler?
The answer to this one question tells me a lot about you. If you answer 'yes', then you probably believe that we are born with the predispositions to do terrible things. That evil can be in our DNA. If you answer 'no', then you probably have a less deterministic view of human behaviour, perhaps believing that environment and upbringing play a critical role in how we end up as adults. Or, perhaps, you said 'no' because killing babies is generally frowned upon.
Either way, I think that the answer is fascinating. I also think that it is almost certainly based on incomplete evidence. Because do you really know whether terrible little babies become terrible adults? And is your brain actually that different from Hitler's?
Let's do a thought experiment. If Hitler was alive today, and we put him into a neuroimaging scanner, what would we find? Would there be damaged structures, overactive sections, swastika-shaped ventricles?
Before we can reconstruct his brain, we need to first consider whether Hitler was mad, bad or both. One of the first psychological profiles of Hitler was written during World War II. It is considered to be one of the first offender profiles ever, and was written by psychoanalyst Walter Langer in 1944 for the Office of Strategic Services, a US intelligence agency and early version of what would later become the Central Intelligence Agency.
The report described Hitler as 'neurotic', that he was 'bordering on schizophrenia', and made the correct predictions that he was striving for ideological immortality and would commit suicide in the face of defeat. However, the report also makes a number of pseudo-scientific assertions that are unverifiable, including that he enjoyed masochistic sex (being hurt or humiliated) and had 'coprophagic tendencies' (the desire to eat faeces).
Another attempt at a psychological profile was published in 1998, this time by psychiatrist Fritz Redlich. Redlich conducts what he refers to as a pathography – a study of the life and personality of a person as influenced by disease. In studying Hitler's medical history and the medical history of his family, along with speeches and other documents, he argues that Hitler showed many psychiatric symptoms, including paranoia, narcissism, anxiety, depression and hypochondria. However, although he finds evidence for so many psychiatric symptoms that he 'could fill a psychiatry textbook', he argues that 'most of the personality functioned more than adequately' and that Hitler 'knew what he was doing and he chose to do it with pride and enthusiasm'.
Would he have wanted to kill baby Hitler? Or would he have placed more importance on Hitler's upbringing? Redlich argues that there was little to suggest during childhood that Hitler would become a notorious, genocidal politician. He argues that, medically speaking, Hitler was a fairly normal child, who was sexually shy and did not like torturing animals or humans.
Redlich also argues against the idea that little Hitler had a particularly troublesome upbringing, and criticises psycho-historians for assuming that he did. It seems that we cannot assume this to be the cause of his later behaviour, and the unsatisfying answer to whether Hitler was mad seems to be 'no'. It turns out that this is often the case. Just because someone has committed heinous crimes does not mean that they are mentally ill. To assume that everyone who commits such crimes is mentally ill removes personal responsibility from the perpetrators of such acts, and stigmatises mental illness. So, how are people like Hitler capable of such horrors?
Working towards a 'neuroscience of human evil', psychological scientists Martin Reimann and Philip Zimbardo came up with a different idea as to why we are capable of horrible acts. In their 2011 paper, 'The Dark Side of Social Encounters', the authors try to establish what parts of the brain are responsible for evil. They state that two processes are most important – deindividuation and dehumanisation. Deindividuation happens when we perceive ourselves as anonymous. Dehumanisation is when we stop seeing others as human beings, and see them as less than human. The authors also explain dehumanisation as a 'cortical cataract', a blurring of our perception. We stop being able to really see people.
This is apparent when we talk about 'the bad guys'. The statement dehumanises. It assumes that there is some homogenous group of individuals who are 'bad', and who are different from us. In this dichotomy, we, of course, are the 'good guys' – a diverse group of human beings who make ethically sound decisions. This dividing of the world into good guys and bad guys was one of Hitler's preferred approaches. Even more distressing was the development of the argument that those targeted were not even made up of 'bad people', that they were not even human. A dramatic example of dehumanising was seen in Hitler's genocidal propaganda, where he described Jewish people as untermenschen – subhumans. The Nazis also compared other groups they targeted to animals, insects and diseases.
More recently, the United Kingdom and United States have seen a string of vitriolic public statements about immigrants. In 2015, British media personality Katie Hopkins described migrants arriving in boats as 'cockroaches', a term that was publicly criticised by the UN's human-rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. He retorted, saying, 'The Nazi media described people their masters wanted to eliminate as rats and cockroaches.' He added that such language was typical of 'decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion'. Similarly, on 1 May 2017, the 100th day of his presidency, Donald Trump read aloud as part of a speech the lyrics of a song about a snake originally written in 1963 by Oscar Brown Jr.
On her way to work one morning Down the path alongside the lake A tender-hearted woman saw a poor half-frozen
Trump uses the story as an allegory about the dangers of refugees. He is comparing refugees to snakes.
This kind of oversimplified grouping of an imagined enemy is echoed over and over in politics, partly because it is so catchy. With a bit of help from a leader and some inspiring rhetoric, harmful ideologies readily flourish. And, while we all sometimes fall into this trap, some of us are particularly prone to being influenced by such poisonous imagery.
This is where we really begin our imagined reconstruction of Hitler's brain. Given his particular propensity for dehumanising, the parts of the brain responsible for this may have been particularly affected. According to Reimann and Zimbardo, deindividuating and dehumanising 'could potentially involve a network of brain areas, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and brainstem structures (i.e., hypothalamus and periaqueductal gray)'. Helpfully, they provide an image of their model, which I have reconstructed for you.
Their model suggests that what starts as a feeling of anonymity, of not being to blame for what we do because we feel like we are simply part of a larger group, ends with an increased ability to do harm to others. Here's how they propose evil works in the brain.
Deindividuation. The person stops thinking of themselves as an individual, and identifies as an anonymous part of a group. This leads them to feeling like they are not personally accountable for their behaviour. This is related to a decrease in the activity of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex – vmPFC (1). Reducing the activity in the vmPFC is known to be linked with aggression and poor decision-making, and can lead to disinhibited and antisocial behaviour.
Dehumanisation. This decreased activity is accompanied by an increase in activity in the amygdala (2), the emotion part of the brain. This is linked to feelings such as anger and fear.
Antisocial behaviour. Then, these experienced emotions go via the brainstem (3) to trigger other sensations (4), like increased heart rate, blood pressure and gut feelings. These changes are essentially the body getting into fight-or-flight mode – anticipating bodily harm and getting ready to survive.
It is argued that this pathway is enhanced in those who have an underactive vmPFC, and has been seen repeatedly in studies of offenders. Research has shown that murderers and psychopaths in particular have decreased activity in the vmPFC. Just as an underactive thyroid means that your metabolism is defective and you are more likely to become overweight, it is thought by researchers, including Reimann and Zimbardo, that an underactive vmPFC means that your moral judgment is defective and you are more likely to commit crime and do other antisocial acts. As Reimann and Zimbardo summarise, 'Research on aggression suggests that decreased activation of frontal lobe structures, particularly the prefrontal cortex, or lesioning of this brain area can be a central cause for aggression.'
If we were to peek into Hitler's brain, it would probably look normal at first, but when asking him to make moral decisions we might see an underactive vmPFC, combined with indicators of his general paranoia and anxiety. However, given that he did not have any major abnormalities or brain damage that we know of, it seems very unlikely that I could tell the difference between a scan of an average healthy brain and a scan of Hitler's. Knowing nothing about you, I probably would not be able to tell apart a scan of your brain and of Hitler's brain.
Instead of thinking of some people as particularly bad, and others as good, let's rethink this and flip the question: rather than asking if a few specific people are predisposed to being sadistic, we should ask: do we all have a sadistic predisposition?
According to a 1999 paper by psychological scientists Roy Baumeister and Keith Campbell, 'Sadism, defined as the direct achievement of pleasure from harming others, is the most obviously intrinsic appeal of evil acts.' They argue that the existence of sadism makes other theories or explanations of evil obsolete – 'People do it because it feels good; enough said.'
Inspired partly by Baumeister's work, and further arguing that sadism is actually pretty normal, are Erin Buckels and colleagues. In a paper published in 2013, they argue that 'current conceptions of sadism rarely extend beyond those of sexual fetishes or criminal behavior ... Yet enjoyment of cruelty occurs in apparently normal, everyday people ... These commonplace manifestations of cruelty implicate a subclinical form of sadism, or, simply, everyday sadism.'
As part of her research Buckels and her team conducted two ingenious experiments. As they describe in their paper, 'Needless to say, it is not possible to study human murder in the laboratory. We therefore turned to a proxy behavior more amenable to ethical research, namely, killing bugs.' Needless to say, indeed. So, instead of asking participants to murder people, they asked them to murder bugs. Of course we all know that bugs aren't really a proxy for people – we have probably all killed bugs – but this task might still be able to tell us something about who is willing to be sadistic and who isn't.
How did it work? The researchers recruited participants for a study on 'personality and tolerance for challenging jobs'. Once they arrived at the lab, the participants got to choose to do one of four tasks that mirrored real jobs. They could either be an exterminator (kill bugs), an exterminator's assistant (help the experimenter kill bugs), a sanitation worker (clean toilets), or a worker in a cold environment (endure pain from icy water). The group they were most interested in were the participants who chose to be exterminators. This group was given a bug-crunching coffee grinder and three cups, each with a live bug.
What was particularly creative about this study was its design. According to the team, 'To maximise gruesomeness, we designed a killing machine that produced a distinct crunching sound. To anthropomorphise the victims, we gave them endearing names.' The names were written on the side of the cups – Muffin, Ike and Tootsie.
Do you think you would choose to kill the bugs? To hear them get crushed alive, just because you had been asked to do so? In this particular study, just over a quarter (26.8 per cent) of participants chose to kill the bugs. The next question is whether you would enjoy killing them. According to the study results, the higher participants ranked on sadistic impulses, the more they enjoyed killing the bugs and the more likely they were to kill all three bugs rather than stop before their task was complete. These were normal people, many of whom took pleasure in killing the living critters.
A quick test: as I described the methodology, did you worry about the wellbeing of the bugs at any point? Maybe you were even chuckling away to yourself, thinking how much fun killing bugs is. Hmmm ... you would probably score in the researchers' higher range of subclinical sadism. Luckily for Muffin, Ike and Tootsie, 'unbeknownst to participants, a barrier prevented the bugs from reaching the grinding blades.' The researchers assure us that no bugs were harmed in the making of this science.
The team also conducted a second, completely different, experiment. This one was all about hurting innocent victims. Here, participants played a computer game against an opponent who they believed to be another participant in a different room. They had to press a button faster than their opponent, and the winner got to 'blast' their opponents with a noise, the loudness of which the winner got to control. Half of the participants got to blast right away after winning, while others had to do a short but boring task before they were allowed to administer the noise. The boring task involved counting the number of times a particular letter appeared in nonsense text. It was easy but tedious. Their imaginary opponent always chose the lowest blast level, so that there would be no need for retaliation.
Would you blast your opponent? How loud would you go? Finally, would you be willing to work for the opportunity to hurt them? The study results show that while many of us would be willing to hurt an innocent victim, only those who scored higher on sadism increased the sound once they realised that the other person did not fight back. Those were also the only people willing to do the boring task in order to hurt their opponents.
It appears that many 'normal' people are willing to be sadistic. The results led the researchers to argue that we need to get to know ourselves better if we want to really get an understanding of sadism. 'For the phenomenon of sadism to be fully addressed, its everyday nature and surprising commonness need to be acknowledged.'
What are the common characteristics of these kinds of sadistic behaviours? One common theme that appears is aggression. When you hurt something else, for example when you kill a bug, you are acting aggressively. Similarly, in order to get sadistic pleasure, it seems that most of the time one must first do something aggressive. So let's back it up a bit. What other kinds of aggression are there? Let's start with a type of aggression that you have probably felt but never understood: a weird feeling that you want to hurt tiny, fluffy animals.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Evil"
Copyright © 2019 Julia Shaw.
Excerpted by permission of Abrams Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Hunger, 1,
1. Your Inner Sadist: The Neuroscience of Evil, 13,
On pain, pleasure and psychopathy,
2. Murder by Design: The Psychology of Bloodlust, 45,
On serial killers, toxic masculinity and ethical dilemmas,
3. The Freak Show: Deconstructing Creepiness, 75,
On clowns, evil laughs and mental illness,
4. Two-faced Tech: How Technology Changes Us, 103,
On air pirates, bad bots and cyber trolls,
5. Kinky as F*ck: The Science of Sexual Deviance, 131,
On S&M, coming out and zoophilia,
6. To Catch a Predator: Understanding Paedohebephiles, 167,
On understanding, preventing and humanising,
7. Snakes in Suits: The Psychology of Groupthink, 189,
On paradoxes, slavery and ethical blindness,
8. And I Said Nothing: The Science of Compliance, 223,
On Nazis, rape culture and terrorism,