The Psychological Power of Satan

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Justice Antonin Scalia and Keyser Sozeagree: the greatest trick the devil could ever pull is convincing the world he didn’t exist. Fortunately for them, the devil does not seem to be effectively executing this plan. Some 70 percent of Americans, according to a 2007 Gallup Poll, believe in his existence. This personification of evil has implications beyond the supernatural, influencing how we think about what it means for people to be “pure evil.” And as we prepare to playfully celebrate the wicked and depraved on Halloween night, it’s worth pausing to reflect on some of the psychological and behavioral consequences of these beliefs.

Evil has been defined as taking pleasure in the intentional inflicting of harm on innocent others, and ever since World War II social psychologists have been fascinated by the topic. Many of the formative thinkers in the field — Kurt Lewin, Stanley Milgram , Solomon Asch — were inspired by their experiences with, and observations of, what appeared to most people at the time to be the indisputable incarnation of pure evil. But what many saw as a clear demonstration of unredeemable and deep-seated malice, these researchers interpreted as more, in the words of Hannah Arendt, banal. From Milgram’s famous studies of obedience to Zimbardo’s prison study, psychologists have argued for the roots of evil actions in quite ordinary psychological causes. This grounding of evil in ordinary, as opposed to extraordinary, phenomena have led some to describe the notion of “pure evil” as a myth. A misguided understanding of human nature deriving both from specific socio-cultural traditions as well as a general tendency to understand others’ behavior as a product solely of their essence, their soul, as opposed to a more complicated combination of environmental and individual forces.

The issue of whether “pure evil” exists, however, is separate from what happens to our judgments and our behavior when we believe in its existence. It is this question to which several researchers have recently begun to turn. How can we measure people’s belief in pure evil (BPE) and what consequences does such a belief have on our responses to wrong-doers?

Written By: Piercarlo Valdesolo
continue to source article at scientificamerican.com

23 COMMENTS

  1. Surely the greatest trick that that the religious pull off is to persuade themselves that a devil exists,

    I’m atheist, but agnostic on whether believers need to be told they are wrong. But I certainly believe that believers in evil need correcting.

  2. Evil has been defined as taking pleasure in the intentional inflicting of harm on innocent others

    Like telling people that condoms help spread HIV?

    And to think, I believed satan was just interested in luring televangelists into the arms (legs?) of prostitutes.

    • This is certainly something that needs addressing. How people conceptualize moral categories will determine how they go about dealing with real people, and I think it’s important to combat a deep-seated tendency to promote a Myth of Pure Evil because it is psychologically naive. In fact, the latter part of the article is so important that I want to reproduce it here:

      Regardless of whether the devil actually exists, belief in the power of human evil seems to have significant and important consequences for how we approach solving problems of real-world wrongdoing. When we see people’s antisocial behavior as the product of an enduring and powerful malice, we see few options beyond a comprehensive and immediate assault on the perpetrators. They cannot be helped, and any attempts to do so would be a waste of time and resources.

      But if we accept the message from decades of social psychological research, that at least some instances of violence and malice are not the result of “pure evil” — that otherwise decent individuals can, under certain circumstances, be compelled to commit horrible acts, even atrocities — then the results of these studies serve as an important cautionary tale. The longer we cling to strong beliefs about the existence of pure evil, the more aggressive and antisocial we become. And we may be aggressing towards individuals who are, in fact, “redeemable.” Individuals who are not intrinsically and immutably motivated by the desire to intentionally cause harm to others. That may be the greatest trick the devil has ever pulled.

      In reply to #5 by Roedy:

      We define evil at that which we want others to refrain from doing to us.

      Not really. I want others to refrain from hugging me without my permission, but I don’t consider such behaviour “evil”. By the same token, sadomasochists want some people to hurt them for sexual gratification, but that doesn’t make it OK for them to inflict pain on others.

      More consistent examples of “evil” would include: causing harm to a sentient organism without interest for its welfare; behaving unfairly towards sentient organisms without pragmatic justification for its or anyone else’s welfare; completely ignoring individual welfare in favour of grandiose attempts to reshape social structures; inflicting distress and fear on other sentient organisms without interest for their welfare; killing an organism without such justifications as self-defence and terminal-disease-based voluntary euthanization; and, indirectly, by not respecting rules and laws designed to cater to the welfare and means of welfare of sentient organisms, at least within a particular society.

      • In reply to #17 by Fritz:

        In reply to #5 by Roedy:

        We define evil at that which we want others to refrain from doing to us. But many evils, e.g. dropping white phosphorus on babies, are not evil when we do them.

        Bollocks!

        That was such a compelling counter argument but in spite of that it wasn’t completely clear to me. Are you saying that dropping white phosphorous on babies doesn’t happen? Or that it’s not evil? Or that no one denies that it’s evil?

  3. Ah yes,Satan.God the sinless, created this monster and then kicked him out of the celestial palace.Of course goD knows everything so he knew that satan would sin grievously but created him anyway and sent him down to cause murder and mayhem while goD the sinless looked on,no doubt while pontificating with himself, the son and himself , the ghouly host.

    Did he take a few minutes to reflect on the fact that he was the creator of the devil and therefore responsible for said devil’s evil ways?No sirree Bob.Just sent the devil on his wicked way to plague poor old Job after the havoc in the Garden and other almighty mess-ups.

    And people invoke goD to help fight satan.Why the hell would they do a damnfool thing like that?

    The only thing that makes sense is that this is one heck of a fairytale and a scary one too, if you consider that the ‘good guy’ is worse than the ‘bad guy’.

    Someday we will understand why people are the way they are.Religion, however, will not be providing any answers and the sooner the faithful realise this and stop impeding progress, the better for all of us.

    • In reply to #8 by Christiana Magdalene Moodley:

      Ah yes,Satan.God the sinless, created this monster and then kicked him out of the celestial palace.Of course goD knows everything so he knew that satan would sin grievously but created him anyway and sent him down to cause murder and mayhem while goD the sinless looked on,no doubt while pontificatin…

      “The good guy is worse than the bad guy.” The bible in a nutshell.

      • In reply to #9 by justinesaracen:

        “The good guy is worse than the bad guy.” The bible in a nutshell.
        Or .. . The bad-guy is really the good-guy, because he was on “our side” and did it in the name of our god.

        “Thou shalt not kill” (Israelites) – Killing/robbing other tribes (out-group) is OK – and is to be commended as a way of exercising threats and power!

  4. I think belief in the devil is easy to understand in evolutionary terms. To not believe in absolute evil, and therefore to learn to understand motivations behind acts we find unpleasant is a luxury ill afforded to any thinking organism wanting to stay alive.

    To the prey, the predator is “pure evil”. There are only 2 options, fight or flight. Reaching an agreement isn’t an option. The concept of punishment most unenlightened people have is based on this. lock them away or kill them. Stating the mantra “it’s what they deserve” is simply wrong, who knows what they deserve? We only know what they’ve done.

    Apes haven’t evolved to see all threats as problems that need solving by instinct, they need to learn this fact and it’s a hard lesson because most of them love the devil. He’s the great simplifier of their personal issues and they get very defensive when he’s threatened. An example of this will be every time a child abuser states in court they were abused as a child, there will always be a chorus of “oh so am I supposed to feel sorry for him now?!” well actually, yes. And still be angry at what he’s done, and demand the victim is compensated and helped, and investigate how the crime was not prevented in the first place and that the perp is made to repay society somehow while rendering them powerless to be a threat in future.

    Religion is Satan worship

    • In reply to #14 by Jjcob82:

      If god is all powerful than why does the devil exist? Believing in the devil directly contradicts belief in an all powerful god unless of course the devil is considered to be useful.

      You said “if” , Perhaps god is not all powerful, or all knowing.

  5. We all have good and bad in each of us… its natural….
    Evil is just a word to describe an extremely nasty bad act…..perhaps committed by someone who is dangerously mentally ill…
    If evil is supposed to describe people – that is just wrong…its the act they commit that could be seen as an evil act…..

  6. I suspect more people would be afraid to draw a pentagon and say something nice about the devil than they would be to draw a cross and say something derogatory about god. Movies about the devil have far more believability and punch than the sugary pap put out to advertise god.

  7. When I was in the school, I was cruelly bullied by ordinary children and youth. Were they evil? Well, I thought they were. I wrote misanthropic stories about children and youth as villains, enemies of everything which is beautiful, pure, good, clean, innocent and lovely.

  8. Did the study look at why 70% believe in evil? Or where did this 70% get their ideas from? How much is popular culture? It seems a belief in a deity cannot be separated from a belief in the devil (evil) and if these statistics are relevant… evil seems to be winning… probably because we have so many confirmed accounts and everyday examples (beheadings by the terrorists and cartels, etc.)… whereas, a miracle is still a matter of faith (not evidence). I think many humans are mentally lazy it is easier and simpler to follow the herd and believe in nonsense without question while they go through the daily task of survival. We have entertainment with vampires drinking blood in an empathetic light plus they all seem to be gorgeous creatures… young minds cannot help but be influenced. Learning rational thinking seems to be the problem… if we trash up young minds for the first twenty years of their lives… with intelligent design and no sex education for the main course and vampires and zombies for dessert… what else can we expect?

    I remember a comedian asking the question; “Why would the devil punish me for doing his work? I was just being one of his home boys… and a leader doesn’t punish his home boys.” Of course, Lil Kim in N. Korea recently put the lie to this reasoning… a gullible somebody better pray (oops) that he doesn’t decide to get evil over a basketball tournament.

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