We naturally strive to understand actions that are out of the ordinary—we can’t help it. If we see a woman suddenly slap a man in a restaurant, we will speculate about her state of mind, her reasons and their relationship. Perhaps he said something rude and she felt insulted. Perhaps tension had been building in the relationship over the course of weeks or months. We have a technical term for this natural inclination: “mentalizing,” our ability to understand our own and others’ behavior as based on mental states, such as needs, desires, feelings, thoughts and beliefs.
Mass shootings, and especially the senseless and gratuitous slaughter of young children, strain our mentalizing capacity. Such acts seem incomprehensible, unfathomable. The Sandy Hook killings are so horrifying that we recoil from thinking about them—we have a strong aversion to imagining the children’s and staff’s experience, the families’ experience, the first responders’ experience or the neighbors’ experience. And I find Adam Lanza’s state of mind unimaginable. Efforts will be made to try to reconstruct his mental state, but whatever we learn is nevertheless likely to defy our capacity to empathize with him—to put ourselves in his mental shoes during the time of his actions.
We all have had far too much exposure to such horrifying acts, and they inevitably get labeled by someone as “evil.” The perpetrator is liable to be branded an “evil person.” Then the label, evil, evokes someone else’s ire. Does this label further our understanding or hinder it? Perhaps our most condemning word, “evil” demonizes and sets the individual apart as alien—other, inhuman, beyond comprehension and perhaps redemption.
Yet, setting aside any supernatural connotations, some philosophers and psychologists have endeavored to understand evil in a way that might point in the direction of prevention. Susan Neiman contended that, whenever we conclude that something ought not to have happened, we are on the path to evil. Introducing clarity into this potentially inflammatory discourse, Claudia Card dispassionately construed evil as producing foreseeable intolerable harms, and she focused on the gravity of the harm rather than the perpetrators’ psychological states as the distinguishing factor of evil. I became interested in the literature on evil because of specializing in trauma. Consistent with Claudia Card, I concluded that evil is evil by virtue of the trauma it wreaks. By this descriptive standard, the Sandy Hook tragedy was evil indeed—traumatic to the extreme on a large scale.
Mindblindness & mentalizing
There is no simple explanation of the basis of evil actions, and they must be understood from social-cultural and neurobiological as well as psychological perspectives. The psychology alone is enormously complex. John Kekes conducted in-depth case studies of evil actions and identified several common motives: faith, ideology, ambition, honor, envy and boredom. In conjunction with understanding traumatizing behavior, I am inclined to focus on what’s missing—namely, an empathic connection with the experience of the persons being traumatized. I like Simon Baron-Cohen’s term, “mindblindness,” to identify what’s missing, and Baron-Cohen also has concentrated on the lack of empathy as a central contributor to evildoing. This lack of psychological awareness or attunement to the victim’s suffering boils down to a failure to mentalize. Mentalizing puts the brakes on whatever inclination we might have to inflict pain on others.
I first appreciated the connection between evil, trauma and mentalizing failures when I read Hannah Arendt’s account of Eichmann’s role in the Holocaust. Arendt did not view Eichmann as monstrous but rather was struck by his extraordinary shallowness and his inability to think—which I translate as an inability to mentalize. Similarly, Roy Baumeister made a systematic study of perpetrators of evil actions, and he was struck by their seeming ordinariness; he estimated that only about 5 percent committed violence in cruel pursuit of sadistic pleasure. Most were oblivious to the damage they wrought.
In itself, the term, evil, explains nothing; it calls for an explanation. If we’re going to use the term—as many traumatized persons do—we should use it mindfully. We have the work of many scholars to guide us. If we are to make progress in prevention and intervention, we must have faith that the seemingly incomprehensible can be comprehended. We might not acquire enough information to glimpse Adam Lanza’s state of mind, although it looks like enormous efforts will be made in the service of understanding. Mental illness is being explored, and additional attention to the pervasive need for improved mental health services will be all to the good—with the possible downside of exacerbating stigma.
Yet the diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder will not go far in explaining Adam Lanza’s actions, inasmuch as violence is not characteristic of psychiatric disorders. Indeed, this level of violence—as much as it compels our attention—is so extraordinarily rare that it is not characteristic of any single condition, such as genetic risk, poverty, abuse, neglect, access to weapons, immersion in violent videogames, much less any form of mental illness. Some tragic, complex combination of circumstances must occur. Hence prevention must occur on many fronts, bit by bit.
Empathy as antidote
Consistent with my focus on mindblindness and mentalizing failure in evildoing, Baron-Cohen points to enhancing empathy as the ultimate antidote to evil. Rightly, Baron-Cohen considers empathy to be the most valuable resource in our world. As much as they underscore our propensity for evildoing and mindblindness, these mass shootings and other acts of terrorism invariably underscore what is far more prevalent in our nature and culture: empathy and human goodness, glaringly evident in the community’s and nation’s response to this tragedy. I was invited to go to Oklahoma City soon after the bombing of the federal building there and, even more than the extraordinary horror of the scene, I found the outpouring of help and support to be overwhelmingly powerful. To carry on with hope and to pursue the long, hard work of prevention, we must hold on to this balance of perspective on our human condition.
Editor’s note: For more on the Sandy Hook tragedy, check out:
- Where is providence in the midst of tragedy?
- Shifting Sandy Hook information landscape means understanding will have to wait
- Responding to the Sandy Hook tragedy: What of the soul?
Allen, J.G. Restoring mentalizing in attachment relationships: Treating trauma with plain old therapy (chapter 6, existential-spiritual perspectives). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013.
Allen, J.G. Evil, mindblindness, and trauma: Challenges to hope. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 77, 9-31; 2007.
Arendt, H. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York, Penguin; 1963.
Baron-Cohen, S. Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1995.
Baron-Cohen, S. The science of evil: On empathy and the origins of cruelty. New York: Basic Books; 2011.
Baumeister, R.F. Evil: Inside human violence and cruelty. New York: Freeman; 1997.
Card, C. The atrocity paradigm: A theory of evil. New York: Oxford University Press; 2002.
Kekes, J. The roots of evil. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; 2005.
Neiman, S. Evil in modern thought: An alternative history of philosophy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; 2002.