The Myth of Pure Evil

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Finally a valid reason to criticize Star Wars.

In the 21st century, we surely don’t believe anymore that evil is a force lurking in some of us, making us menacing creatures. Yet we sometimes act as if this was the case...

By trying to become a better negotiator, I came in contact with many ideas that, once absorbed, have changed my life for the better. One such gem is the myth of pure evil, discussed by Stuart Dimond in Getting More, an excellent audio negotiation course that I wholeheartedly recommend.

This concept also comes up in The Happiness Hypothesis , by Jonathan Haidt. The author explains “the myth of pure evil” as the psychological tendency of people to imagine that they are purely good (or right), while others are purely evil (or wrong). As the title of his books suggests, Haidt hints at the liberating feeling and improved quality of psychological life that comes with accepting that all is not black and white. Others have good intentions as well, even though they may clash with ours.

The probable result of a combination of cognitive biases, the myth of pure evil translates into our inability to understand another party’s position. And what a lovely recipe it is: start off with some stereotyping, add in a fundamental attribution error or whatever cognitive bias you prefer and conclude with a gratuitous forced opinion. Then strengthen the belief that you are absolutely right by adding some overconfidence and a dash of self serving bias to ensure that you interpret the circumstances in a way that confirms your beliefs. To accentuate your tension in this situation, mix in a projection bias so that you assume that others should have the same belief as you. The result of this fun concoction is escalating conflicts. disagreements with no remedy and even wars.

Luckily, leading authority in negotiation, Stuart Diamond, comes to the rescue and helps us eliminate our short sight by simply getting to know the party who we oppose with passion. It’s hard to hate someone once you know them, once you understand them and their values, their motivations, their constraints.

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Personally, I understand why we fall prey to this judgement trap. We grow up with fairy tales where good fights evil and prevails (insert Star Wars reference here), our religions scare us with contrasting images of heaven and hell (kudos to Buddhism for not subscribing to that idea) and our parents have the duty to teach us right from wrong, as if there was no gray in between.

And then there’s the social feedback we get when we express an opinion that puts aside our subjective experiences and tries to understand the circumstances of the other party. Try saying that the thief who stole your friend’s wallet was most likely pushed by circumstances to committing that act and he probably doesn't do that for pleasure. Your friends will hide their valuables around you. Or better yet, tell your best friend that the blonde flirting with her boyfriend is not the wicked witch of the west, but that she’s actually very nice.

As with everything, stating our positions and opinions about the “evil side” involves leverage. When we’re talking about groups, we must leverage the sympathy of our group with the objective appraisal of how “wrong” the other party is. When it comes to us as individuals, we must leverage our interest with the interests and needs of the other person, interests that we only discover and understand by putting our biases aside.

References:

Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty
Roy F.Baumeister, 2001

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom
Jonathan Haidt, 2006

Getting More: How to Negotiate to Achieve Your Goals in the Real World
Stuart Diamond, 2010