Sunday, April 24, 2022

Christopher T. Burris's "Evil in Mind"

Christopher T. Burris is a Professor of Psychology at St. Jerome's University, in the University of Waterloo, Canada. In addition to creating and teaching a course on the psychology of evil for over two decades, Dr. Burris contributes to courses in the psychologies of good, religion, and death and dying. His published research has spanned the breadth of human experience--from the self, consciousness, afterlife beliefs, atheism, and from sadism, hate, and evil to empathy. The sum of these efforts, he hopes, is to contribute to a greater understanding of some of life's big issues.

Burris applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Evil in Mind: The Psychology of Harming Others, and reported the following:
The big word at the top of page 99 of Evil in Mind is “Sadism”: the title and topic of Chapter 6. I begin by asking my readers (and, now, you): “What comes to mind when you read the word ‘sadist’?” For most of us, “sadist” and “evil” go (gloved) hand-in-hand – so much so that being sadistic is practically a job requirement for those seen as embodying “pure evil.” Consequently, it’s only very recently that psychologists have begun challenging the assumption that sadism is only likely to show itself amongst perversely vicious criminal types. If we can move beyond the queasy feelings that this stereotype often provokes toward a clearer understanding of what sadism actually is… well, sadism suddenly appears to be not nearly as rare as we might hope. And what is sadism? It’s a form of hate. You’d have to read Chapter 5 (“Hate”) for the nuts-and-bolts of my reasoning but, basically, sadism is a motivational state, a desire for harm to befall some other being (i.e., hate) because that is seen as a means of securing some sort of positive emotional payoff (pleasure, satisfaction, and the like). So it’s not about what a person does or the impact that it has, it’s about what the person wants, and why they want it.

Honestly, page 99 of Evil in Mind is a pretty lucky strike. “Sadism” got a whole chapter for a reason: Along with hate, serial killers, and group-based “evil” such as genocide and corporate corruption, sadism is part of what I call the “Pantheon of Evil” – because people would probably be stunned if a book about evil didn’t address those things.

But beyond the attention grab, page 99 offers another variation on a theme present throughout the book: Despite its VIP reservation beneath evil’s big, dark umbrella, sadism is probably not what you think – or, at least, not only what you think. Yes, many serial killers are fueled by sadistic motivation (as I argue in Chapter 7, “Serial Killers”), but so are many pranksters. The motivational structure is the same: “If X suffers, I’ll feel good.” But most people don’t want to see themselves, or be seen by others, as “evil,” so they’ll tell stories to make that suffering seem okay. Like “it wasn’t a big deal.” Or “that person had it coming to them.”

This taps into themes that I deal with in the first four chapters of the book: when and why we think we “know ‘evil’ when we see it,” why we’re quietly terrified of being seen as “evil” and the lengths to which we’ll go to deflect that label, and why we’ll sometimes do things that harm others anyway despite our quiet terror.

You’ll note – probably with a sense of unease or maybe indignation – that I keep saying “we.” That’s because I don’t think “evil” is ever always about “The Other.” We’re all subject to the same pushes and pulls. We can be nice or naughty. We can be noble or nasty. Ultimately, my hope is that Evil in Mind gives readers more insight into how they themselves are pushed and pulled so they can make better – that is, less “evil” – choices.
Learn more about Evil in Mind at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue