Psychology for Writers

Insights for the writer and the writing

Why Bad Guys Think They're Good Guys

Is evil in the eye of the beholder?


One of my biggest pet peeves about many story villains is that they walk around twisting the ends of their mustaches and declaring that they are the bad guys. In reality, most people involved in evil behavior don’t see that behavior as evil. 

In a conflict, each side sees itself as good and justified and the enemy as evil. In fact, you can argue that the only real thing that differentiates a protagonist from an antagonist is that the author is taking the protagonist’s side and showing his or her justifications rather than the justifications of the antagonist.

In a conflict, the enemy is painted to seem horrible. WWII propaganda fascinates me because each side is vilifying the other. American propaganda shows a swastika-bearing boot crushing a church, or a swastika-bearing arm stabbing a dagger through the Bible. Meanwhile, the Nazis were painting Hitler as a Christ-like figure wearing a cross and bearing a sword to vanquish the evil dragons representing Germany’s enemies. 

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“The face of evil is no one’s face,” writes Roy Baumeister in his book Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. “It is always a false image that is imposed or projected on the opponent.” And philosopher Hannah Arendt said, “The most horrifying things about the Nazis was not that they were so deviant but that they were terrifyingly normal.”

Pure evil, argues Baumeister, is just a myth.

Psychologist Albert Bandura would probably agree. He theorized that people who do evil have justified the morality of their actions to themselves in some way. By convincing themselves their behavior is moral, these people can separate and disengage themselves from immoral behavior and its consequences.

 Bandura said that there were four different approaches to “disengaging internal control.”

1. Redefine the behavior

 Redefining the behavior is a manner of changing perspective so one’s behavior seems less reprehensible than heroic. Many hate groups use this approach; so did a great deal of WWII propaganda.  For example, while most people believe that hatred and killing are generally wrong, hating and destroying something you have defined as evil is a whole different ball game. (Bandura called this “moral justification.”) This calls to mind that old ethical dilemma—if you could travel back in time and kill Hitler as a baby (and theoretically save millions of lives in the process), would you do it?

I Googled around to see what people online have said about it, and the majority seem to be for killing baby Hitler. What’s interesting about the dilemma that a lot of people don’t point out is that Hitler was not the only person responsible for WWII, the Holocaust, and related atrocities. It also assumes that Hitler was evil incarnate from the cradle, and that environment had little or no influence on what he became. But then, it’s much easier to redefine your behavior as moral and good when things are black and white.

2. Disregard or distort the consequences of behavior

Minimizing, distorting, or disregarding the pain one’s actions create for others certainly reduces feelings of guilt for harming others. When I was collecting propaganda to talk about stereotyping, prejudice, and hatred for my classes, I discovered Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia (the goal of which is to teach tolerance). I was astonished by the number of images of slaves looking—or even saying—they were happy to be in the positions they were in.

3. Dehumanize or blame the victims

In many cases, the propaganda identifies the happy-looking slaves mentioned with the n word. Epithets like this are used to dehumanize people who are being mistreated. As Roy Fox writes in his article Salespeak (printed in the book Common Culture: Reading and Writing about American Popular Culture, 5th ed), “Names [are] sacred: they communicate the essence of our identity, not just to others but to ourselves as well. To rob someone of her name was to appropriate her identity, to deny her existence.”

4. Displace or diffuse responsibility

Rather than taking personal blame for evil, many people blame a larger group or organization. Over and over in history, people who have committed atrocities blame the orders they were given, and because they believe that following orders was the greater good, they feel little or no guilt for their actions.

 During the Nuremburg trials, for example, individuals who personally ushered Jewish people into gas chambers and killed them passed off personal responsibility by arguing that they had not done evil … they had simply been following orders. William Calley, who was convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, stated during his testimony that “I carried out the orders that I was given, and I do not feel wrong in doing so.” In a talk I saw Philip Zimbardo do on his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, he said that the soldiers involved in the Abu Ghraib prisoner torture  were also following orders. “The only thing they were not told to do,” he said, “was take pictures.”

All of this is to say that reprehensible acts are often disguised by intentions people have convinced themselves are good. So when you create your story villains, don't show your villain twisting his mustache ... show him arguing that his evil behavior was all for the good. He might well be wrong, but he will certainly be acting like a real villain.

© 2012 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD ♦ Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today 

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior.  More information is available on the book's website.

Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D., is an Assistant Professor at Columbus State Community College and author of The Writer’s Guide to Psychology.

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