Tag Archives: Evil

Reflecting on teaching the ‘Psychology of Evil’

14 Feb

I’ve just finished two weeks of teaching ‘The Psychology of Evil’, and I thought a few reflections might be in order:

1) The students (250+ of them) seemed to really engaged with some quite hard-hitting material i.e. holocaust, children killing children, Rwandan genocide US School shootings etc

2) I was extremely pleased that the material seemed to shift students thinking. At the beginning of the first lecture students clearer saw the soldiers in the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures as being ‘Evil’,  but by the end of the second lecture their views had clearly changed to seeing the ‘system’ as being the ‘Evil’ component. There is an excellent HBO documentary, ‘The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib’ that seemed to be the turning point.

3) Having taught the material for the first time, and reflected on it subsequently it’s really interesting that the ‘take home message’ was ‘don’t trust single explanations of complex human behaviour’.  It led me to thing that actually if students take that one point away from the lectures it would have been quite successful, and any resultant learning of bit of social psychology or mental health material is an added bonus.

All in all a really rewarding teaching session that makes me think that teaching really ‘big ideas’ and then attaching the research to it subsequently is a much more productive approach than the usual theory-driven model.

Trying to think rationally about US gun laws

4 Jan


Since the dreadful attack on The Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut just before Christmas I’ve been thinking about the debate that followed might be integrated into my rational thinking teaching. I’m sure that for those teaching in other disciplines there will be other parts of the debate that will seem relevant, but for my students (who are studying psychology) I’ve settled on two points. Firstly, the idea that the attack was ‘evil’, and secondly the question of the cultural differences between Europe and the USA.

The Psychology of ‘Evil’

In the immediate aftermath of the attack the Connecticut State governor Dannel Malloy visited Newtown and was reported to have said ‘Evil visited this community today’. I was immediately struck by how unhelpful this was in trying to explain the attack. It seems to me that calling the attack ‘evil’ removes any requirement to understand why to attack happened i.e it happened because the attackers was evil. It will be interesting to discuss this idea with students, particularly as psychology does have something to say about the aetiology of ‘evil’ acts whether it be Zimbardo’s ‘Situationist’ approach or Baron-Cohen’s more recent work on ‘evil’ and the absence of empathy.

Cultural Differences between Europe and the USA

Possibly of more general interest is the apparent difference in reaction between Europe and the USA. I’ve previously written about the idea that students tend to not differentiate between Europeans and Americans, and yet this is an example where the vast majority of Europeans struggle to grasp the attachment of many  (50%) Americans attachment to the right to bear arms. For the average European the post-attack reaction of the American National Rifle Association (NRA), suggesting that the attack could have been prevented had the school teachers been armed seems so extreme as to be difficult to believe.

Trying to uncover rational thought about US Gun Law is difficult, and often confounded by the lobbying power of the NRA, but I’ve come across a few articles that are of interest :

Silencing the Science of Gun Research – From the Journal of the American Medical Assocation takes a look at the avaialble research

The Riddle of the Gun – By Sam Harris is an interesting take on why some completely rational Americans might have to desire to own a gun, and an excellent critique of Sam Harris’s article

Finally, I found “Should Gun Owners Have To Buy Liability Insurance?” a really intriging idea that balances the need for regulation with the sense of so many Americans that they ‘need’ to own a gun.

I’ll report back after I’ve taught this stuff in February.

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