Knowing Evil in Order to Prevent It

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Maybe I shouldn’t read about this because it will make me sad.

I get easily annoyed with people who are always prescribing “uplifting” and “positive” forms of entertainment, reading material, etc. The typical claim is that darker material “normalizes” evil, influences us to do evil, or gets us down. However, psychological research has discovered the benefits of studying evil. “While probing into the vile and the profane can be profoundly uncomfortable,” an article at UCB’s Greater Good Science Center explains, “there are concrete benefits to doing so.”

From an evolutionary perspective, familiarizing yourself with what you fear and dread likely pays survival dividends. “You would pay attention to, and have interest in, the horrific,” writes Penn State psychologist Marissa Harrison, “because in the ancestral environment, those who ‘tuned in’ to horrible events left more descendants, logically because they were able to escape harmful stimuli.” Those attuned to members of a rival tribe plotting an assault, for example, would have been better able to defend themselves, warn others, or flee before it was too late.

Even today, our self-preservation impulse helps explain our determined attempts to understand evil. In a 2010 study of why women were drawn to true-crime books, University of Illinois psychologists argued it was at least in part “because of the potential life-saving knowledge gained from reading them.” “We can ill afford to overlook a potentially dangerous person or situation—it could be fatal,” says University of Richmond psychologist Scott Allison.

But more than this, the study of evil can improve character:

A 2012 study reveals that immersion in the reality of genocide motivates people to combat prejudice when they see it. College students who took a 15-week course in Holocaust and Genocide Studies said the course awakened their desire to fight discrimination and empowered them to make changes in the world around them. A Scottish government study reported that Holocaust education programs achieved similar results with elementary-aged students; after the programs, most were more likely to state that racism was unacceptable.


it is possible to overdose on evil, so to speak—to focus on it so intently that your entire outlook darkens, your frame of reference narrows, and you descend into apathy. This risk intensifies when examples of depravity start flying at you fast and furious, as during a personal crisis or a governmental upheaval.

Looking closely at your motivations and thought patterns can help you determine if your fixation on the malign serves you or holds you back. If your obsession ends at poring over online morgue photos of murder victims or bidding on serial killers’ paintings on eBay, it’s probably not all that helpful, to you or to society at large.

But if your venture into the depths of human evil motivates you to resist evil in the real world or educate others about how to resist it, it’s a productive—even virtuous—use of your time. It may help to seek company when you visit a museum or even read a book. In other words, get yourself a buddy or a team to help you try to understand evil, to help keep things in perspective.

Something worth thinking about.


6 thoughts on “Knowing Evil in Order to Prevent It”

  1. I agree. Not all forms of entertainment are created equal. My comment was more of a jab at the “all R-rated movies are bad”-type people.

  2. I don’t have a problem with R-rated movies per se. There are some–like The Matrix–that I apologetically consider classics. But I find a lot of truth to the idea that darkness in our entertainment (vs. historical or psychological studies) can have a pretty bad impact.

    I guess I’m just more bothered by the “I watch Westworld to understand the nature of evil” folks than I am by the “no rated-R movies” folks.

  3. After all, the “no rated-R movies” folks seem like a dying breed, whereas the fanbase for Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, Westworld, etc. seems to be growing without boundaries.

    I find a lot of deliberately “uplifting” entertainment to be saccharine garbage, but in the grand scheme of things it certainly seems like the lesser evil vs. the increasingly debauched levels of popular entertainment. There’s not an awful lot out there that I can comfortably watch these days.

    Mostly, I stick to Avatar: The Last Airbender (original series) and Phineas and Ferb with my kids, to be honest.

  4. Oh, and I don’t mean “those are the things I find suitable for my children.” (Although that’s true, too.) But rather, “the few things left I happen to enjoy are also things I can watch with my kids.”

    Don’t get me wrong, when they’re a little older we’ll all watch Firefly together and love it, but it says a lot that my favorite shows tend to be either children’s cartoons or TV series that were cancelled over a decade ago.

  5. “But I find a lot of truth to the idea that darkness in our entertainment (vs. historical or psychological studies) can have a pretty bad impact.”

    I think it depends. Admittedly, I don’t have much of a filter when it comes to movies. Nonetheless, I think “darkness” would have to be defined. I think there are problems with movies that “call evil good and good evil”; that make evil look desirable or praiseworthy. Or at the very least operate within an amoral framework (I often find more of this in lighthearted romantic comedies than the heavy stuff Mormons tend to avoid).

    I also think there is the problem of nihilism in some films. Not nihilistic *characters* necessarily, but just an overall feeling of nothingness and hopelessness.

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