profound immorality and wickedness, especially when regarded as a supernatural force:


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Let's take a close look at the word "Evil"


: morally reprehensible: sinful, wicked an evil impulse

Synonyms & Similar Words Relevance

Other ways Evil can manifest:
: arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct a person of evil reputation
: causing discomfort or repulsion : offensive an evil odor

: disagreeable woke late and in an evil temper

: causing harm : pernicious the evil institution of slavery
: marked by misfortune : unlucky
 British often and US sometimes  ˈē-(ˌ)vi(l)-
 British often and US sometimes  ˈē-(ˌ)vil-


2 of 3


: the fact of suffering, misfortune, and wrongdoing
: a cosmic evil force
: something that brings sorrow, distress, or calamity
: in an evil manner
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Ethics and Morality

Good People, Evil Actions

What leads good people to do horrible things?



Can anyone become a monster?

We like to think that only unusual and horrible people do evil things. But what if anyone, even a basically good person, will perform evil actions?

I am worried about evil.

I don’t mean simple run-of-the-mill bad things that we all do sometimes.

The occasional lie, speeding, or insulting someone.

I mean evil.

Causing serious harm or killing someone.

Choosing to harm or kill an entire group of people based on the color of their skin, their ethnic background, or their religion. In the last 100 years, there have been multiple episodes of genocide.


Here’s my question: Are there only a few truly monstrous people who will perform these acts of evil or is it something that almost anyone will do?


This was the fundamental theoretical question that Stanley Milgram (1963) asked in his research on obedience to authority. Milgram wanted to understand the holocaust.

He opened his paper by focusing on the fact that “from 1933 to 1945 millions of innocent persons were systematically slaughtered on command.”

He stated that the commands “originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only be carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of persons obeyed orders” (p. 371).


As I write this blog post, we have just passed the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the US entry into World War II. January 27th was Holocaust Remembrance Day, a time to reflect on the millions of Jews and others who were slaughtered by the Nazis.

This month, February 2017, marks the 75th year since President Roosevelt signed the executive order that resulted in the internment of people of Japanese descent.

The internment did not result in the execution of people as occurred during the Nazi holocaust.


Nonetheless, I list the Japanese internment as another example of a time when basically good people did something evil. Innocent people were imprisoned.

People lost their freedom and property based on the color of their skin, and their ethnic background. Basically, decent people were following orders.

They obeyed authority.


Milgram studied how normal, good people following orders can harm another person.

In his research, a single individual meets the experimenter and someone who appears to be another participant.

But that other person is actually a confederate of the experimenter.

The experiment supposedly concerns the impact of punishment on learning.

You are assigned the role of teacher and the confederate becomes the learner.

The confederate learner is taken to an adjoining room, is strapped into a chair, and has electrodes attached to his wrist.


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The task is for the confederate to memorize pairs of words.

When the learner makes an error, you, the teacher, are asked to give him a shock.

The shocks gradually escalate from 15 to 450 volts.

Verbal labels are attached to the shock switches as well.

These escalate from slight, to moderate, strong, intense, dangerous, and severe.

The last two switches are simply labeled XXX.


When you apply a shock, the panel containing the switches makes a buzzing sound.

In some versions of the experiment, you hear nothing until you reach the 20th shock at 300 volts.

At that point, the learner pounds on the wall and he stops responding. In other versions, as you apply greater shocks, the confederate learner makes a series of predetermined responses.

At 75 volts, he complains for the first time.

At 150, he demands to be let out.

At 180, he responds that he can’t stand the pain.

Again at 300 volts, pounding can be heard and he no longer responds.

You are told to treat a nonresponse as an error and continue administering shocks up to 450 volts.

If you express concern, the experimenter asks you to continue.


Let me be clear: This research involved very strong deception.

The confederate was never shocked. Given the deception and the stress participants experienced, people continue to debate the ethics of this type of research as well.

But imagine being a participant in the study.

When do you think you would stop?

When do you think most people will stop?

What percentage of people do you think would continue all the way to the end?


Make your estimate before reading further.


Milgram often described the basic design and then asked people when they thought most people would stop and what percentage they thought would continue all the way to the end — all the way to the XXX 450 volts, the person not responding, and the point of apparent harm.

Almost everyone believes that very few people would continue to the end.

When Milgram asked introductory psychology students how many people would continue to the end, their estimates ranged from 0 to 3%.

When he surveyed professional psychiatrists, they estimated that most people would stop at the 10th shock when the confederate first complained.

On average the psychiatrists estimated that less than 1% would continue to the end. We believe there are very few people who would do something so clearly cruel.


This is what makes the actual results completely disturbing and important.

No one stopped when the confederate first asked to stop.

No one stopped when the confederate cried in pain.

A few participants finally stopped at the 20th shock — at 300 volts, when the confederate refused to answer and pounded on the wall.

But only 12.5% stopped then.

Most continued. Horrifyingly, 65% continued to the end.

You do not have to search for villains to find people to commit atrocities.


Evil is not always a characteristic of a person.

Evil can exist in the situation.

In some situations, even good people will commit evil acts.

The holocaust wasn’t perpetrated only by monsters.

The people who locked up citizens of Japanese descent weren’t awful human beings.

Basically, decent people participated in these actions.


You should keep in mind that Milgram’s experiment isn’t that powerful of a situation.

There were no threats to the participants.

They wouldn’t lose their jobs for stopping. No one threatened their families.

The participants were stressed, often expressed concern for the confederate, and frequently asked to stop.

But at a calm request from the experimenter, they nonetheless continued.


Milgram and many others have endeavored to understand why people obey.

I want to note a few aspects of the situation that Milgram (1974) thought were particularly important. First, the participant becomes absorbed in doing the task.

They follow through carefully.

This seems to be what Hannah Arendt described as the “banality of evil.”

Evil is performed by people carefully following orders to perform small actions correctly.


Milgram also noted that people seem to pass their moral judgment to the authority figure.

Once engaged in the task, they focus on doing their job well.

They do not focus on the ethics of the overall situation. Crucially, many of the participants started to see the confederate as deserving of the punishments.

They saw him as different and unworthy.

Imagine highlighting how a group of people is different and a threat.

This will make it easier for people to see them as deserving of what happens to them.


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If you want to forestall evil and if you want to not simply follow orders, then you have to break the situation.

You should keep in mind the big picture, not just the small actions you’re performing. You must retain your own ethical responsibility.

Critically, you must always see other humans as deserving of fair and reasonable treatment.

The best defense against committing atrocities may be a strong sense of empathy for all people.

Valuing diversity and focusing on similarities may enable you to resist efforts to demonize individuals and groups.


I don’t teach and write about Milgram’s obedience studies merely as a history lesson.

This isn’t just about the Holocaust, other historical instances of genocide, and the Japanese internment. Obedience to authority is completely contemporary.

I teach my students so that history won’t repeat itself.

I write so that I always remember. Knowing about Milgram’s studies is critical.

You should be prepared in case you ever find yourself in a situation where obedience means violating your own ethical standards.


Recently, I’ve thought frequently about obedience to authority.

I’ve watched how people are responding to the Syrian refugee crisis. I’ve worried as I’ve read the news concerning how people in my country are describing and treating undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and other people who are different.

I teach so that we learn from the past.


In his writing, Milgram (1965) concluded:

"The results are to this author disturbing.

They raise the possibility that human nature, or more specifically, the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority.

A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority.

If in this study an anonymous experimenter could successfully command adults to subdue a fifty-year-old man, and force on him painful electric shocks against his protests, one can only wonder what government, with its vastly greater authority and prestige, can command of it subjects.

There is, of course, the extremely important question of whether malevolent political institutions could or would arise in American society (p 75).”


If you are interested in learning more about Milgram’s work, a movie that focused on obedience studies and his other research was released in 2015.

I strongly recommend watching The Experimenter.


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Am I Evil Quiz


About This Quiz

Evil is such a relative term.

We venerate great men and women throughout history who would be pretty awful people by today's standards.

Of course, you can only judge people alive now by the standards we have today.

You may have been judged at some time by someone you work with, by a friend, or by your own family.

What if they're evil?

Would they even be qualified to tell you if you were evil?

Sometimes even people with good intentions do things with terrible unforeseen consequences.


To the Vikings, they were saving their communities from starvation and fulfilling the will of the gods.

To the Romans, crushing all their surrounding cultures was about making the world safe and orderly so commerce could happen on a larger scale.

Were these people evil?

Not from their perspectives, but certainly by those of the people whom they crushed.

They are certainly subject to our judgment now. The question remains—how can you find such a clear perspective on your own actions?

The answer is easy! We devised a test, free of the subjectivity of the age and of past ages.

It hews to a simple philosophy that accurately classifies evil, using present-day situations and a clear moral framework.


Wondering if you're evil?

Take this test and find out!

What Actually Is Evil?

And What Makes People Carry Out Evil Acts?

The myth of “Pure Evil,” and the real reasons why people do “evil” things.

Posted June 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma


Key points

  • "Evil people" and "evil acts" are common, but much less common than is generally believed. Most people are moral and self-controlled.
  • Most people who intentionally harm others don't think of themselves as evil, tending to minimize or justify their actions—in crime and in war.
  • Some of the worst atrocities have been motivated by Utopian ideals, especially coupled with irrational conspiratorial belief and dehumanization.
  • Biological and cultural evolution have favored cooperation and compassion in humans. Violence has in fact been declining in human societies.
On Wikimedia Commons / Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0703-507 / Unbekannt / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Adolf Hitler speaking at the Kroll Opera House to Reichstag members about war in the Pacific, December 11, 1941

From genocide to malware and everything in between, it’s easy to feel demoralized about the moral fiber and caring of our fellow humans.

It can certainly seem that malice is endemic to humans.

The default state, perhaps.


And yet, as the highly cited social psychology researcher Roy Baumeister noted in his seminal work Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty:1 "One starts a work like this wondering, ‘Why is there evil?’

But after reviewing what is known about the causes of aggression, violence, oppression, and other forms of evil, one is led to the opposite question:


Why isn't there more evil than there is?"


For starters, Baumeister debunks the very notion of evil, “the myth of pure evil,” making the point that the factors driving people to do bad things to each other are highly complex.

The notion of evil is a simplistic one. Nevertheless, for practical purposes, he uses the term in his analysis:2


"There are four major root causes of evil or reasons that people act in ways that others will perceive as evil. Ordinary, well-intentioned people may perform evil acts when under the influence of these factors, singly or in combination."

  1. The simple desire for material gain
  2. Threatened egotism
  3. Idealism: "Noble ends are often seen as justifying violent means."2
  4. The pursuit of sadistic pleasure: "Only 5 or 6 percent of perpetrators actually get enjoyment out of inflicting harm."2

Why is “evil” not more prevalent than it is?


Bad people or bad actions?


A disproportionate amount of violence and crime in ordinary societies is perpetrated by the small minority of people with antisocial personality traits.

An even smaller percentage are psychopaths, at the extreme end of the spectrum of antisocial traits—the ones most likely to commit sadistic acts of violence.3


But aside from the disproportionate contribution of nasty personality types, a lot of other violence is simply committed impulsively rather than premeditated, and many of those kinds of perpetrators do actually feel regret or shame for their actions afterward.

Human interpersonal violence is often carried out by people acting impulsively, fearfully, insecurely, passionately, vengefully, or misguidedly.

A lot of this is reactive aggression.

Only some violence is premeditated, calculated, or predatory (proactive aggression).

And when violence and crime are committed by groups, there is also the huge factor of peer pressure and influence.


So far, we have mostly been talking about “ordinary” violence and crime, not war or government tyranny.


People who do evil things generally don’t consider themselves evil.


People often tend to minimize the harmful impact of what they are doing or rationalize their reasons (even if motivated primarily by the simple desire for material gain or by threatened egotism), often seeing their action as much less of a big deal than the impact experienced from the victim’s point of view, or feeling that the victim threatened or provoked them or deserved what was done to them. Baumeister suggests that while the victims’ motto is “Never forget,” the perpetrators’ motto is “Let bygones be bygones,”


Evil villains in Hollywood movies aside, Baumeister notes that “most people who do evil do not think of themselves as doing evil […], most of them regard themselves as good people who are trying to defend themselves as the good guys fighting against the forces of evil.

The world breaks down into us against them, and it almost invariably turns out that evil lies on the side of ‘them’” (referring here more to violence between groups, nations, ideologies, etc., than to individual criminal acts).


Even Hitler considered himself and the German people to be victims—principally of the Jews, whom (together with the leftists) he blamed for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and its subsequent crushing economic conditions and humiliation.

He portrayed the Jews as a greedy amoral race living parasitically off the German people and set on destroying Germany.

He viewed the Nazi persecution of, and subsequent mass murder of, the Jews as self-defense.

An anxious man with a nervous digestive system, neurotic contamination obsessions, volatile temper, lack of formal education (not having completed his secondary schooling), and a strong tendency to externalize blame for his personal failures,

Hitler was just the sort of person to believe and propagate bizarre paranoid conspiracy theories.


[Note: This blog post is a bare-bones summary of a vast and complex topic. It warrants elaboration, which I’ve provided in the footnotes, with additional illuminating material, for readers who want to understand more about the motivations of evil-doers.

The footnotes include for example, quotes by Heinrich Himmler—a foremost architect of the Holocaust, explaining and justifying his own motivations.]


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Societal control and self-control.


Baumeister states: "All told, the four root causes of evil are pervasive, which leads one to wonder why violence and oppression are not even more common than they are. The answer is that violent impulses are typically restrained by inner inhibitions; people exercise self-control to avoid lashing out at others every time they might feel like it." Violence is often the result of reduced self-control or a breakdown of societal control.14


Inhibitory control or self-control is largely a function of the frontal lobes of our brains (especially the prefrontal cortex). As the neuroscientist and biological anthropologist Robert Sapolsky pithily puts it: The frontal lobe helps us do the harder thing when it's the right thing to do.15


There is very wide variability in frontal lobe functioning across individuals—probably best described by a bell curve, like most traits.

A great many people have relatively lower frontal cortical brain activity and consequently lower self-control (and, more generally, weaker executive functioning).

The most common clinically defined “disorder” associated with these characteristics is ADHD.16 ADHD plays an outsized role in human aggressive and criminal behavior.

A recent meta-analysis of the prevalence of ADHD in incarcerated populations found that compared with published general population prevalence, there is a fivefold increase in the prevalence of ADHD in youth prison populations (30.1 percent) and a 10-fold increase in adult prison populations (26.2 percent).17


Context, context, context


The biological and social-cultural determinants of human behavior are vastly complex, as Sapolsky lucidly demonstrates in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst—his richly complex multilayered explanation of the many biological and cultural factors influencing human behavior including aggression.

He repeats a cautionary statement several times throughout the book, whenever we might be tempted to conclude that we have arrived at a complete explanation and understanding of what makes humans do the things they do: “It’s complicated.” Genes and the environment interact inextricably, all the time. And he reminds us of the importance of “context, context, context,” in influencing the basic biological factors that underlie human behavior.18


How a person will behave is strongly influenced by genetic predisposition, past experience (especially early childhood experience), socio-economic and cultural factors, the presence of an intact society with prosocial norms, specific interpersonal dynamics between individuals, and the particularities of the immediate circumstances.


Innate tendencies and long-term trends


There is a larger philosophical debate about whether humans in their natural uncivilized state are innately “bad” or “good,” often referred to as “Hobbes” vs. “Rousseau” views.

Sapolsky helps us see why, unsurprisingly, it’s “a mixture of both.”19, 20


Steven Pinker’s magisterial work, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,21 provided mountains of data demonstrating that violence has actually been substantially declining in the last few centuries.

Among the very many factors contributing to this, a major one was the establishment of centralized societal control in the form of the state (initially religious and authoritarian, and later democratic in many countries).

There has also been an increase in norms of (and possibly even capacity for) self-control in modern societies. Improving standards of living, literacy, education, employment, and health have of course all contributed hugely too.

Economic interdependence, cosmopolitanism, the resultant expanding notion of within-group (“us”), and the generally increased ability of people to understand the points of view of others very different from themselves, have also contributed greatly.

The empowerment of women has also been enormously influential.

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The internet and social media have amplified both the best and worst aspects of human nature, increasing the availability of both high- and low-quality information, equalizing the ability of individuals and groups to disseminate information far and wide, breaking down traditional group boundaries while also fostering new “tribal” affiliations.22


In summary


People who do bad things often tend to believe that their actions are on the side of the good, or they rationalize that their actions are justified or not such a big deal.

Biological and cultural evolution have conferred many brakes on violence and malice, and have favored cooperation and even compassion.

In the long view of history, there has been an uneven but unmistakable trend toward less violence and more interdependent cooperation within and between human societies.


Being a victim of an evil act is utterly devastating, demoralizing, and disillusioning, and telling victims that evil is not as common as it seems does nothing to reduce their trauma. But it might help a little to know that the world is not a pervasively bad place, that most people are not innately “evil,” and that the world is steadily becoming a less violent place.23



1. Roy F. Baumeister, Evil - Inside Human Violence and Cruelty (New York: W. H. Freeman, 1997), p. 13. See also: Baumeister, R. F. (2012). Human evil: The myth of pure evil and the true causes of violence. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Herzliya series on personality and social psychology. The social psychology of morality: Exploring the causes of good and evil (p. 367–380). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/13091-020.

We will refer in this article only to intentional acts committed by people, not to accidents, illnesses, natural disasters, or attacks by non-human animals. We will take it as self-evident that such events don't happen for an intentional "reason" (apart from the mostly instinct-driven agency of animals).

2. Baumeister, Evil - Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, p.376-7.

3. An especially malevolent combination of overlapping traits that has gained recognition in the psychological literature in the last couple of decades is the so-called dark triad, marked by narcissism (characterized by egocentrism), Machiavellianism (exploitativeness) and psychopathy (lack of empathy). Milder versions of these traits are not uncommon. People with such traits may even have many positive traits too. The really malevolent and potentially dangerous people are the small minority of the population with more marked versions of these traits.

[Click 'more' to view footnotes 4-23, below.]

[The footnotes below contain illuminating material for readers who want to understand more about the motivations of evil-doers, with a particular emphasis on the Nazis. The footnotes include, for example, quotes by Heinrich Himmler—a foremost architect of the holocaust, explaining and justifying his own motivations. There are also evolutionary psychology perspectives on evil, and other insights.]