Not an easy choice: the science behind humanity’s dark side

Imade Credit: Teodora Aldea

Versatile as ever, The Edinburgh International Science Festival provides insights not only into hard sciences like physics and biology, but also into the less discussed and more volatile pockets of research. Such is the case for The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side, a lecture delivered last week by psychologist Dr Julia Shaw, who has spent her career focusing on memory and criminal psychology.

In an attempt to make the audience question their own sense of morality and clever enough to keep everyone entertained, Dr Shaw structured her presentation similarly to a ‘choose your own adventure’ book. She therefore allowed the public to vote and pick which kind of ‘evil’ they would like to know more about and discuss. And with topics as varied and controversial as creepiness, BDSM, baby Hitler, zoophilia, and psychopathy, the choice was not an easy one.

Creepiness won the first round of votes.We were all surprised to find out that long fingers and facial hair are, according to science, more likely to make one be perceived as creepy. However, as one experiment showed in the past, our creepiness radar might be off; when shown mixed images of murderers and famous scientists and asked to point out those who looked more trustworthy, participants failed to tell the difference between America’s most wanted and most accomplished.

On the topic of psychopathy, Dr Shaw challenged the public on their preconceptions – most psychopaths never become offenders, most serial killers are not psychopaths, and psychopathy has levels, meaning that lots of individuals show psychopathic traits to some degree, even though they are not clinically classed as psychopaths. However, these traits, such as diminished empathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism, may make one more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour. But perhaps the most dangerous misconception about psychopathy is that psychopaths can’t change, since research has shown that treatment can help with mitigating the negative social consequences of psychopathy.

The topics of paedophilia and the moral dilemma of whether one would kill baby Hitler if given the chance also succeeded in keeping the audience animated. But the take-home message of Dr Shaw’s talk is a deeper one; labelling a person or an action as ‘evil’ creates barriers between individuals and ends important conversations that would otherwise lead to a better understanding of underlying psychological issues. Moreover, we should be able to talk openly about taboo subjects in an attempt to bridge the gaps between those who carry out antisocial actions and those who don’t. At the end of the day, we are all probably capable of being ‘evil’, even if we end up not doing evil things.

Dr Shaw has also published two books which encompass the fruits of her research. Her debut book, The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting and the Science of False Memory explores the twists and turns of memories and how these can be led astray, for example to the point where one can remember events that never took place. Her second book, on which her talk was based, is titled Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side and is a highly recommended read for anyone who wishes to further delve into the types of ‘evil’ in our society.

This post was written by Teodora Aldea and edited by Karolina Zieba.

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