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“Evil” can be defined as intentionally behaving, or causing others to act, in ways that demean, dehumanise, harm, destroy, or kill innocent people (Zimbardo,2004). When reflecting on the definition of evil the question arises as to whether ordinary people, like you or I, have the capacity to commit “evil” acts? This is the primary question that I will explore within this piece of work, which is important given the news of wars, terrorism and acts of hatred committed around the globe every day. In this essay, I will firstly reflect on the psychological explanations for evil, then relate this to modern day examples and finally consider how harmony could be promoted.


To contextualise this essay, in 2015, the murder rate rose in England and wales by 11%, knife crime by 9% and sexual offences by a staggering 29% in the same year. In a time of austerity, where there are financial cuts to government run organisations, such as the police force and the NHS, this seems particularly worrying. However, this is far from new phenomena, in fact, evil acts have been committed by humans since time began. At the turn of the 20th century, Nazi Germany and its allies were the perpetrators of mass murder and genocide resulting in around fifteen million deaths during the Holocaust period.  This was proceeded by years of hostility towards certain ethnic groups and the persecution of people based solely on their backgrounds who were blamed for the unfortunate events in society i.e. Hyperinflation in Western Germany in the year of 1923 and the failure of the German army in WWI. This is demonstrated by the extract of Hitlers autobiographical book ‘Mein Kampf’ (My Struggle) “Was there any form of filth or crime…without at least one Jew involved in it. If you cut even cautiously into such a sore, you find like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden light – a Jew.” The above quote demonstrates the level of hatred Adolf Hitler was spreading even in 1923 when this book was published.  Reflecting on this extract begs the question as to how can one man have had such control over so many and result in him commanding millions to kill? Could it be that Nazi Germany was just an organisation full of naturel born killers, or was there some something else going on?

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In the media, recently Jihadi John and Salman Abedi amongst many other Islamist Terrorists have been reported to have been committing serious evil acts, which the majority of people could not imagine committing. The interesting thing about cases like Jihadi John or Michael Adebolago is that, like many others, they are young, educated and do not have a background in violence of this sort. One explanation of why these people commit these atrocities could be that they are innately evil. More specifically, the dispositional model of evil suggests that acts are a result of predisposed factors, such as personality and psychopathological risk factors. In other words, some people are born a certain way making them more likely to engage in cruel acts.


Do I have to reference simple things like names of Terrorists


Dispositional factors include personality and psychological risk factors. Some research suggests that some people are born with psychopathic tendencies predisposed in their genetic composition to have certain behavioural traits which make them more likely to engage in offender behaviour. Characteristics of psychopathy include lacking remorse and empathy, poor self- control, compulsive lying among many other characteristics linked to psychopathy. In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental health disorders (DSM-V) includes a category for those who may lie, act violently and show no remorse. The DSM-V terms such people as having Anti-Social Personality Disorder. Interestingly, this disorder may be found in 47% of male and 21% of female prisoners, strengthening the view that certain traits lead to criminality.


Specifically, there are a number of well-known serial killers who have previously been diagnosed with anti-social personality disorder, namely; Ted Bundy an infamous killer and necrophile who confessed to 30 murders in the 1970s, also in the 70s John Wayne Gacy, the “Killer Clown,” raped and killed 33 boys/ young men, Charles Manson, the leader of the “Manson Family” cult, Manson was also the mastermind behind the 1969 murders of Sharon Tate.


Those who have been diagnosed with this disorder are likely to have abnormalities in the brain such as a reduced prefrontal grey matter (Raine et al., 2000), amygdalar abnormalities (Blair, 2003), and asymmetric hippocampi (Raine et al., 2004). The prefrontal grey matter in the brain contain neuronal cell bodies, this matter includes regions of the brain involved in sensory perception e.g. emotions, decision making and self-control all of which match psychopathological traits. The Amygdalae’s primary function in the brain is to process decision making and emotional reactions, subsequently, abnormalities of these have been linked with Bipolar disorder and psychopathy due to its role in facial emotion processing. Finally, asymmetric hippocampi, the hippocampi like those above are part of the bodies limbic system which supports a variety of functions such as emotion, emotional reactions and behaviour. One can only speculate how these brain differences could be implicated in psychopathic behaviour, however, abnormalities in these may disrupt functions normally performed by these specific areas of the brain giving individuals traits likened to a psychopath.Further study suggests that some children show these types of behavioural traits from early on in their life, those who are categorised as the 5% most antisocial when of the age of 7 years are 500-1000% more likely to display indicators of serious life failure at 25 years e.g. drug dependency, unwanted teenage pregnancy, criminality and unemployment to name a few ((Fergusson et al., 2005). (Book title Antisocial Behaviour and Conduct Disorders in Children and Young People). Other studies conducted later showed that the majority of adults with antisocial personality disorder had conduct disorders previously and 90% of severe recurrent teenage offenders showed antisocial behaviour in early childhood (Piquero et al., 2010. Therefore, backing the notion that people are born with personality and brain abnormalities which in later life give these people greater chance of committing crime therefore committing evil.

Not only is it antisocial personality disorder which is implicated in violent crime, another psychological disorder is Borderline Personality Disorder. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) characteristics include anxiety, emotional instability, those with this disorder can suddenly become very paranoid or suspicious of others (Skodol et al., 2002). Those with BPD are said to have a highly aggressive nature and lack empathy noted by Simon Baron-Cohen as a disorder that results in ‘zero degrees of empathy’ (Baron-Cohen, 2011) (Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty and Kindness). The aggressive side of the disorder has also been flagged by other notable psychologists i.e. Skodel et al who suggested that it is often comorbid with impulsive aggression too (Skodel et al, 2002). An example of this disorder resulting in evil acts is the acts of Joanna Dennehy who was diagnosed with BPD and later murdered three men and attempting to kill two others in Peterborough.

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