Support for the Death Penalty May Be Linked to Belief in Pure Evil

People who think evil exists in the world are more likely to demonize criminals, regardless of their character traits

A prison cemetery in Huntsville, Texas, where many executed inmates have been buried. Andrew Lichtenstein/Sygma/Corbis

Earlier this month, Nebraska became the first largely conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty, joining 18 other states and the District of Columbia. Considering it was also the very last to decommission the electric chair as its sole method of execution—finally repealing the practice in February 2008—the news surprised many who had previously viewed Nebraska as a quiet Midwestern state firmly aligned with Republican views.

Critics nationwide praised the bill’s passage as a rare example of bipartisanship, and many hinted that conservative support for capital punishment may be waning. But the U.S. as a whole is still at odds with international opinion—recently it was one of just 38 nations to oppose a UN resolution calling for an international moratorium on the death penalty. That's despite increasing difficulties in obtaining established drugs for "humane" lethal injection and a list of more than 150 inmates exonerated from death row since 1973. So what is it in the nation's psyche that has many people supporting executions?

The reasons behind someone's sense of a just punishment are varied and murky, with a swell of psychological research pointing toward responses to race, sexuality and other hot-button issues. But according to recent research, another fundamental factor may be at play: whether someone believes in the existence of pure evil. A new study by psychologists Russell Webster and Donald Saucier confirms a rising correlation between an individual’s belief in pure evil and their support for harsher punishments, no matter the lifestyle or outward characteristics of the confessed criminal.

“At the extreme levels of criminal perpetration, people who believe in pure evil might not be looking for a situational factor that may have been at play there,” says Saucier, associate professor of psychological sciences at Kansas State University. “They’ll just say, ‘You know what? That person did something horrible, which makes that person evil. They are a demon, and we need to get rid of them.’”

Previous studies showed that stereotypically evil traits increase a perpetrator’s demonization in the eyes of their peers. Recently published in the journal Psychology and Individual Differences, the latest work also assesses specific recommendations for punishing a criminal, “given that the public often has a crucial role in recommending punishment via conventional criminal justice systems,” write authors Webster and Saucier in their paper.

“We were interested in how people thinking about the nature of humanity would impact how they treat them, to boil it down to a nutshell,” Saucier says. “So if you thought that there was a possibility for pure good in other people, what would that look like? And if there was a possibility for pure evil in people, what would that look like?”

The study’s 212 participants—all of them general psychology students at Kansas State University—were first asked to complete a survey determining the extent to which, on a continuum, they believed pure evil already existed in the world. The authors differentiated “pure evil” from behavioral scientists’ typical definition of evil, which centers on unprovoked and intentional harm, Webster says, by adding an emphasis on the sadistic motivations of the wrongdoer. The influence of religion on belief in pure evil wasn’t explored in this study.

Participants were then asked to read a supposedly real newspaper article printed in the Kansas City Star detailing a local murder. In one version of the article, the criminal was assigned stereotypically evil traits, such as an interest in the occult, donning all-black attire and taunting children. In the other version, the criminal was assigned milder traits, like an interest in camping and a focus on family life. In both versions, the criminal confessed to the murder.

The authors assessed the participants’ reaction to the crime using a common tool for measuring attitudes called the Likert-type scale, focusing specifically on how much they demonized the wrongdoer and their feelings of retribution. Finally, the authors questioned participants on their support for jail time, eligibility for parole and the death penalty. To control for the variability in participants’ knowledge of the criminal justice system, all pertinent terms were defined.

“What we basically found is that as they believe more in pure evil, they’re more likely to support things like the death penalty, but it went through mechanisms like thinking the person was a demon and feeling the need to have retribution on them,” Saucier says. “So we were kind of looking at what connects the belief to the outcome.”

But while participants generally recommended tougher sentences for the stereotypically evil perpetrator, greater belief in pure evil alone predicted whether someone demonized the criminal and called for harsher punishment, regardless of the murderer's character traits. “If they believed in pure evil, it didn't matter the characteristics. They were more likely to support the death penalty or life in prison," says Saucier. "The belief in pure evil overrode our stereotypically evil person."

Robert Dunham, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, doesn’t seem surprised by the study. Prosecutors routinely attempt to “emphasize the otherness of the defendant,” he says, whether or not they characterize them as specifically evil. In doing so, they tap into the jury’s subconscious fears.

“With women who are on death row, a lot of times you see references to nontraditional sexual roles of the defendant," he says. "You have either the portrayal of the women as being dangerously seductive, and you see the term ‘black widow’ being applied, or there’s emphasis of their hyper-masculinity when you have a lesbian defendant. You see similar types of efforts to dehumanize in their rhetoric.”

On the other hand, Saucier adds, the defense often works to highlight the criminal’s redeeming qualities to secure a lighter sentence. “So maybe what we already have is in some ways kind of a faceoff of these world views in our criminal justice system,” he says. “I don’t know that for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were to be the case.”

Nevertheless, a belief in pure evil helps negate any qualms of conscience, says Nebraska senator Ernie Chambers: "When you find somebody that believes in the notion of pure evil, that person is excused from having to think or weigh conflicting ideas. Everything is black and white. So you can just get rid of that in any way possible.”

Nebraska’s longest-serving state senator, Chambers had been pushing to abolish the death penalty in the state since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the national moratorium. Now, 35 bills and nearly 40 years later, Chambers’ vision has finally broken through the clouds, garnering enough votes in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature to override the governor’s veto and repeal the death penalty indefinitely.

Applying his study to the news from Nebraska, Saucier says that those most upset about the repeal are probably higher in their belief in pure evil, and vice versa. So what accounts for greater belief in pure evil? Saucier is quick to point out he’s not a developmentalist, but he speculates that people use their own early experiences as prototypes for human nature. And if the debate in Nebraska is any indication, Saucier is on the mark.

In floor debates, senators on both sides of the state legislature dredged up crimes they were exposed to in their own districts or in their early lives. Senator Beau McCoy announced directly after the repeal that he would be pushing for a referendum to reinstate the death penalty. He points to the murder of retired farmer Merton “Mutt” Dickson in June 1989 near his hometown of Burlington, Colorado. Dickson was found dead in his pickup not far from his home, shot 12 times with a 9-millimeter weapon. The perpetrator was never found, and the murder remains in the cold case files in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

“I do remember that particular event as being one that certainly made me realize just how important it is to have law and order and particularly safe communities,” he says. “And the death penalty is one way, from a deterrence factor and justice factor, that you use to achieve public safety in my mind.”

Nevertheless, the debate in Nebraska has closed for the time being, and after 40 years, Chambers is ready to praise what he sees, unequivocally, as progress.

“As a society evolves principals of decency, the harsh punishments fade into the background and pretty soon the angels of our higher nature, as they say, come into play," Chambers says. "And that term ‘rational animal’ has less of the animal and more of the rational. We begin to think our way from this point of darkness to where the light is.” 

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