Your level of belief in pure evil has influence on your feelings about capital punishment, according to a new Kansas State University psychology study.

The investigation of how beliefs in pure evil influence how people treat those who committed crimes was carried out by Donald Saucier, associate professor of psychological sciences, with Russell Webster at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

“We found that as people’s beliefs in pure evil increased, they were more likely to support sentences like life in prison without parole and even the death penalty,” Saucier said. “We found that this actually happened through our participants perceiving the murderer as a demon and feeling that there was some need for retribution for the murder committed."

Around 200 participants were given a summary of a case in which a murderer confessed to his crime.

Researchers then asked each participant about his or her support for different types of sentences, such as jail time with community service, jail time with the opportunity for parole, jail time without the possibility for parole and other options.

Researchers then changed the murderer’s characteristics to be consistent with stereotypes about evil. These included having the murderer be interested in the occult, taunting neighborhood children and wearing all black.

Crime and Punishment

The characteristics also were changed so the murderer was less stereotypically evil. This included having the murderer be relatively quiet, having a family and being interested in camping.

“People who saw the stereotypically evil person versus the non-stereotypically evil person recommended greater sentences,” Saucier said. “But, if they believed in pure evil, it didn’t matter the characteristics; they were more likely to support the death penalty or life in prison. The belief in pure evil overrode our stereotypically evil person."

Such belief helps explain how opinions of others are formed during social interactions and how believing whether a person is “good” or “bad” at his or her core shapes those interactions.

Furthermore, it may help explain how a court jury or judge is likely to assign punishment for a crime. While a belief in pure evil probably would not prompt a guilty verdict, it may influence the jury’s sentence, Saucier said.

For example, sentencing in the trials of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Colorado movie theater shooter James Holmes could be influenced by jury members’ belief in pure evil.

Religious Belief vs. Life Experience

Saucier said it’s likely that life experience more than religion that influences a belief in pure evil. When investigating whether a religious upbringing was linked to a belief in pure evil, researchers found that people’s belief in pure evil didn’t necessitate a belief in pure good and vice versa.

“This belief may change based on traumas, victimization and the celebrations of human success in our life,” Saucier said. “We think it’s a dynamic variable and influences our social interaction and social perceptions."

The study builds on research Saucier and a former graduate student conducted to measure whether evil can be personified and whether a person perceived as completely evil could be rehabilitated. The study found that those who believe evil people exist believe the only resolution is to eliminate those evil people.

Saucier is following up both studies by looking at how people who believe in pure evil and people who believe in pure good would punish the leaders of the Islamic State group.


Russell J. Webster, Donald A. Saucier. Demons are everywhere: The effects of belief in pure evil, demonization, and retribution on punishing criminal perpetrators. Personality and Individual Differences, 2015; 74: 72 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.09.041


“Do preconceived beliefs about evil influence perceptions and punishments of those who harm others? We examined the effects of belief in pure evil (BPE), demonization, and belief in retribution on punishment of a stereotypically (vs. non-stereotypically) evil criminal. Participants punished the stereotypically evil perpetrator more (i.e., greater recommended jail time, opposition to parole, and support for his execution) because of increases in demonization (i.e., greater perceptions of the criminal as wicked, evil, and threatening), but not increases in retributive feelings.

However, regardless of the criminal’s exhibited stereotypically evil traits, greater BPE predicted harsher punishment of the perpetrator; both greater demonization and stronger retributive feelings mediated the relationship between BPE and severe punishments. Further, effect sizes indicated BPE (vs. the evilness manipulation) more strongly predicted demonization and punishment. Thus, some individuals naturally see perpetrators as demons, and retributively punish them, whether or not there is more explicit stereotypic evidence of their evil dispositions.”

Photo: Elad Rahmin/flickr

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