Insight Is 20/20

Exploring the pervasive, and unperceived, patterns that govern our lives

The Easy Way Out With "Evil"

Does evil really exist in humans, or are we just avoiding complexity?

Recently a television news story inspired me to start toying with a very fundamental question: Does evil truly exist in people? The story was entitled "Katie's Story," and it was an expose on ABC News' 20/20. The program highlighted the heinous crime London model Katie Piper suffered in March of 2008, and documented her subsequent recovery process. In a nutshell, Katie met and briefly dated the wrong man, and he ultimately sought revenge when she rejected him. The extremity of his revenge was truly off the charts: he paid someone to throw sulfuric acid into her face - the very face, of course, that was her moneymaker as a model.

In a recent discussion I had about this story, a friend of mine was quick to diagnose the man's problem: pure evil. Yet attributing such a sensationalistic trait - evil - to this behavior seemed, ironically, insufficient and frankly untrue. Of course, it goes without saying that paying a hit man to destroy another person's face is horrendous, and I'm certainly not out to dispute that. Think about the repercussions for the victim: months and even years of corrective surgeries with an ultimate best-case scenario of looking like a cross between somewhat disfigured and somewhat normal. Moreover, just imagine what this kind of trauma does to the psyche. I'm not sure if years of therapy can ever undo that kind of trauma.

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What could possibly motivate such malicious behavior in the perpetrator? As a clinical psychologist, I'm guessing that I would lose my license as a practicing shrink if I ever labeled someone evil or wrote that description on a clinical form describing a patient's psychological makeup. Yet a clinically equivalent label - Antisocial Personality Disorder - does exist and fairly describes a minuscule portion of the population.

In terms of what motivated Katie Piper's perpetrator, I would not ascribe the root of the problem to evil. However, I would deem the root to be mental illness, and further assessment would be needed to clarify the diagnostic specifics.

The distinction between attributing horrific human behavior to evil and attributing it to mental illness is important. If we label the motivation ‘evil,' we label it with no true understanding of - nor any attempt to understand - what goes on inside the mind of the perpetrator and, satisfied with our overly simplistic evaluation, we move on. Such labels are seductive because they provide us with a quick, easy explanation, freeing us from being burdened by complexities. If we label the motivation ‘mental illness,' we leave some room to try to understand the perpetrator. While such an understanding does not issue a pass or an excuse, it acknowledges the complexity that underlies human behavior. In particular, viewing this man's hateful behavior through the lens of mental illness causes us to dig more deeply to consider just how powerfully a person can experience rejection - so powerfully, in fact, that it can induce one to cause disfiguring bodily harm to a former lover.

Picture this man as a young boy: Do you believe three-year-old boys, for example, can be evil? The sad truth is that children are often kind and innocent until something terrible happens to them, and they later develop defense mechanisms to protect their own fragile egos. Even in terms of full-blown sociopaths - those who have been diagnosed and have enacted patterns of sociopathic behavior over many years - it still remains controversial whether they are born maladjusted or whether life circumstances caused that maladjustment.

Ultimately, understanding the psychological roots of heinous crimes is not about Katie Piper's perpetrator, but about how much we as a society are willing to acknowledge just how wounded we can be and the lengths to which a lover scorned will go to redeem himself and to undo the injury his ego suffered. The next time that you hear about a horrific crime, I offer this note: think twice before calling the criminal evil. I know my friend is not the only one to put a little too much stock in the primal gut reactions he has when he hears about a truly terrible crime.

Seth Meyers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.

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