Making Evil

Dr Julia Shaw

Canongate, £14.99

Review by Mark Smith

SOME of what you are about to read may make you uncomfortable. All of us are probably capable of murder. It is common for women to fantasise about being raped. Anyone can become an internet troll, even you. And paedophilia has always been with us and always will be. Julia Shaw, the criminal psychologist, has lots more of this kind of thing to say in her book Making Evil and most of it is unsettling, shocking or disturbing. It’s also rational, intelligent and necessary.

It’s necessary because of the simplistic way many of us continue to think about the concept of evil, or evil deeds, or evil people – if such a thing exists. Right at the start of the book, Dr Shaw explicitly states that she wants to make us rethink what it means to be evil or bad. In particular, she wants us to stop defining human beings by a single condemnatory term: murderer, rapist, liar, psychopath, paedophile, or whatever it might be. Dr Shaw believes a single act should not define a person. Murderers and paedophiles, she says, are people too.

It is when Dr Shaw starts to lay out the evidence in support of her position that her book becomes really fascinating and convincing. For instance, on the idea that all of us are capable of murder, she cites the famous thought experiment which posits a situation in which a trolley is running out of control down a track. In its path are five people who have been tied to the track but you can flip a switch and lead the trolley down another path where only a single person is tied on the track. Do you flip the switch?

The trolley scenario is a classic of psychology but it demonstrates that, certainly from a hypothetical perspective, most of us see killing as fine as long as it is in the name of the greater good or to save someone, especially someone we care about. Dr Shaw uses the experiment to propose the idea that all of us are probably capable of murder given the “right” circumstances but she also goes on to use it to suggest we should be more understanding of those who do kill. Humans kill, she says, for the same reasons they do many other things: to protect their families, achieve their goals, or to deal with basic human emotions like anger, jealously or lust.

Is this controversial? Maybe, but it’s compassionate too and, most importantly, it’s based on sound, if sometimes disturbing, science. The chapter on sexuality is a good example. Dr Shaw cites studies in which 60 per cent of women say they have had rape fantasies and 13 per cent of men and women say they find the idea of non-consenting sex arousing. Why this should be is not entirely clear, but the point is that rape fantasies, and other sexual fantasies, particularly sadomasochistic ones, are perfectly normal.

Dr Shaw makes the same point with internet trolling and, perhaps most controversial of all, with paedophilia. Internet trolling, she says, in which people make vile comments online or abuse people, is a result of the perceived anonymity we have online, as well as the phenomenon known as social contagion, essentially the idea that it is easier to do something if everyone else is doing it. The research also seems to suggest that those who post negative comments are more likely to have been in a bad or unhappy mood. In other words, shouldn’t we feel slightly sorry for them?

We should feel sorry for paedophiles too, says Dr Shaw, and for good reason: paedophiles, she says, do not wake up one morning and decide they are going to be attracted to children and, according to the National Crime Agency, there are around 750,000 men in the UK with a sexual interest in children, meaning it is possible or likely you have interacted with one in the last year or the last week or today. Trying to understand this is not to dismiss the realities of child abuse, or to condone shocking offences, but it could be a step towards treating and helping paedophiles rather than stigmatising them.

This is, in many ways, the most powerful point in the book: we could continue to call paedophiles, or murderers, or even internet trolls evil or twisted or we could help to reduce the risk they pose to children, or women, and to all of us. We can have strong views on what is or is not acceptable behaviour and whether it should be controlled or punished, but knowing and understanding the influences that lead to the behaviour could help us to stop them from having their full effect. And surely that is better isn’t it: to do some good by better understanding bad?