Evil: Book Summary & Review

evil book cover

Evil (1997) is a multi-disciplinary analysis of some of humankind’s oldest and most persistent problems: violence, aggression, and cruelty.
In one word: an analysis of evil.

Evil Summary

About The Author: Roy Baumeister is an American social psychologist, professor at Florida State University, and researcher.

Evil Doers Are Normal People

Baumeister says that to understand evil first of all we must all accept that, under certain circumstances, most people, you included, could commit many of the acts that could qualify as “evil“.

Also read:

The Collective Delusion of “Good”

Not only do most people believe they are good people who deserve good things happening to them, but they also have a rosy view of the world.

Social researchers found out that most people in the West hold the belief that the world is mostly a nice place, mostly fair.

Evil Is In The Eye of The Beholder

Evil is in the eye of the beholder and, most of all, in the eye of the victim.

Most people who commit evil don’t see themselves as evil and would not define their actions as evil.

If there were no victims there would be no evil

Do Violent Perpetrators Intend to Be Harmful? Difficult to Answer…

The author says that only a minority of violent crimes can be justified by “temporary insanity”.

But to ask whether violent individuals intend to cause harm is not as easy as it might seem.
In many cases, evildoers (subconsciously) arrange for situations in which they feel they have little choice but to commit their crimes.

My Note:
However, the fact that they arrange for such situations would lead me to move the needle towards deliberateness.

Why Aren’t More People Evildoers? Because of Self-Control

If evil is so easy to commit, why isn’t there more evil in the world?

Baumeister says that it’s because of self-control.

Many people have violent impulses and aggressive thoughts, but they are held back by internal “breaks”.

This leads Baumeister to conclude that the immediate cause of evil is a shortage of self-control.

Such as evil can happen because of an increase in violent impulses or because of a decrease in self-control (or lack of self-control).
But in either case, the self-control was not enough to stem the aggressive drives.

Are Evil Doers Bred or Born? Both

Baumeister investigates whether evil is mostly the result of nature (genes) or nurture (culture).

Ultimately, the answer must negotiate a mix of both.

This is how Baumeister believes that culture can decrease evil and violence:

Decreasing the emphasis on pride, self-esteem, and public respect, or providing multiple and clear criteria for proving oneself, may work against the tendency to use violence to maintain one’s face.
A strong cultural belief in the rights of individuals and in the inability of noble ends to justify violent means can help prevent idealism from fostering brutality.

The Steorytipes of Evil

Baumeister lists major stereotypes that most people (wrongly) believe about evil.

He calls it the “myth of pure evil,” and it includes:

  • Evil intentionally inflicts harm: random crimes are unusual and exceptional, yet they are the ones that most often color people’s perceptions
  • The victim is good and innocent: in the myth of pure evil the aggressor shoulders all the blame and the victim has no blame at all. This can happen, but it’s the exception and not the rule
  • Evil comes from outside: evil most often comes from the outside and is different from us
  • Deliberate malice of perpetrators: this is mostly a victims’ point of view. Some perpetrators are sadists who enjoy inflicting pain, but most of the time they are not

Baumeister says that the myth of pure evil survives because it makes victims feel better and because it provides a sort of “moral immunity” to justify violent and oppressive actions

The Magnitude Gap: No Big Deal For The Aggressor, Big Deal For The Victim

To understand evil, it’s also important to understand what Baumeister calls the “magnitude gap”.

The magnitude gap says that evil acts are almost always of greater importance for the victim than for the perpetrators.

The magnitude gap also includes the gain/loss accounting. The gain for the perpetrator is usually far smaller than the loss of the victim.
This includes burglaries -goods resell at a fraction of their values- or personal crimes such as rape -lasting little for the rapist while scarring the victim for a lifetime-.

Time-wise the evil act quickly fades into the past for the aggressor while it remains a vivid memory in the minds of the victims.

Victims also tend to describe the evil act as an enormity, while evildoers tend to minimize and describe it in a detached fashion.

The True Cause of Violence Is Too Much Self-Esteem, Not Too Little

Baumeister uses the term “egotism” to describe both the good kind of self-esteem and the bad kind of self-esteem (conceit and arrogance).

There is a widespread belief that acts of violence are the consequence of low self-esteem, but that is not the case.
Violence follows from high self-esteem, not low self-esteem.

To be more precise, and quoting the author:

Violence ensues when people feel that their favorable views of themselves are threatened or disputed by others.
As a result, people whose self-esteem is high but lacks 
a firm basis in genuine accomplishment are especially prone to be violence because they are most likely to have their narcissistic bubble burst.

And more:

A common and important cause of evil is the quest to avenge blows to one’s pride.
Dangerous people, from playground bullies to warmongering dictators, consist mainly of those who have highly favorable views about themselves. They strike out at others who question or dispute those favorable views.

So just to be clear, high self-esteem by itself does not cause violence and most people with high self-esteem are not violent.

However, violent individuals are an important subset of high self-esteem people.

It’s when that high self-esteem is threatened by an external party that violence can erupt against that external threat.

Zero Tolerance: Blaming Both Victims and Perpetrators

Baumeister takes an unpopular stance here, but I fully agree with him as that’s the only emotionally mature way of approaching the issue in my opinion.

He says that being victimized does not justify a violent response.

And sometimes victims need to be blamed as well, and that goes without exonerating the perpetrators.

Instead, he says, American culture seems to forgive the perpetrator if he was previously a victim.

Evil As Manipulation to Fight Wars

The author says that during wars propaganda tried to depict the enemies as pure evil to provide support for the war and an incentive to fight harder.

Because if wars were limited to people who benefit from the war, there would be too few combatants.
So leaders need to find a reason to shore up support for the war.

Unluckily, trying to depict the enemies as evils also serves to increase war atrocities.

Also read:

The Four Roots of Evil

Baumeister lists four root causes of evil:

  • Means to an end (instrumental evil): the more rational side of evil, underpinned by lust, greed, or ambition. For example, the Mongol policy of brutality created terror, but also crime as a shortcut. 
    The evidence suggests that violence is a poor means to acquire material wealth and sustain power, but it can create short-term power and dominance in interpersonal relationships (see abusive relationships)
  • Egotism and revenge: people seek revenge mainly to answer to threats to their self-esteem, aggravated in case of public threats and “what others think”.
    When responding to a blow to one’s self-esteem or public image, people will incur costs and losses to hurt the person who humiliated them”
    • Conceit: higher levels of egotism lead people to regard themselves as superior. That can lead to evil by not caring how others feel because, for the conceited, others don’t matter. 
  • Idealism & utopian goals: it’s men who honestly wanted to do something good who committed some of the world’s biggest atrocities. Evil is not only acceptable, but it becomes an obligation for the sake of the greater good. The most fanatical and hateful members can become the leaders of the pack in idealistic evil (see Hitler).
  • Sadism / fun: it accounts for a minority of evil, but it exists

In the long run, the ends often fail to justify the means, and instead the means tend to contaminate the ends.

Most People Find It Upsetting to Harm Others

Some people have a strong gut reaction to harm others, even when it’s appropriate or even when not harming could cause harm to themselves.

For example, one in four American soldiers in WWII could not aim and shoot at the enemy during battles.

German policemen recruited to kill Jews reported physical revulsion on their first day on the job.

And even serial killers sometimes report upsetting experiences on their first killings.

It’s not that their moral and ethical principles have been violated, but it’s more of a gut reaction.

But Many Also Enjoy Watching Others Suffer

Most people do not enjoy fighting and killing.

But albeit, many people have a revulsion for hurting others, not all do and many more find watching others suffer and die pleasurable.

As Baumeister writes:

The spectacle of violence holds a fascination that seems to transcend time and culture.

However, this is not to say that everyone who watches or enjoys watching violence would be a perpetrator of violence.

Empathy As The Evil Antidote

Empathy is a powerful inhibitor of evil.

And that’s why psychopaths who lack empathy commit more crimes and even more violent crimes.

Empathy also emerges later in life, and that’s why children can be more sadistic

Empathy’s Limitations: Intensity and Circumstances

People are different, and they also differ in their levels of empathy. 

Furthermore, in some cases, empathy does not come into play at all.

Empathy is selective and can come into play in certain situations but not in others.
Some people can disconnect their empathic response independently of their overall empathy.

For example, Hitler was a vegetarian and stood firmly against any type of violence and harm against animals.

But Sadistic Pleasure Can Grow Over Time

This was one of the most eye-opening chapters.

Hans Toch, social psychologist and criminologist, concluded after a long research on violent offenders and violent policemen, that violence is habit-forming and can increase over time.

The author, relying on two different sources (Groth on rapes and Toch on violent offenders), says that around 5% to 6% of violent men are violent because they enjoy the pain they cause.

A few sadists need to overcome the first repulsion towards violence and inflicting pain before becoming sadists.
For example, says Baumeister, many serial killers got their start in the Vietnam War where they were forced to overcome their first resistance to violence.

Sadism is Like Addiction & High Adrenaline

Sadism resembles addiction.

The first puff of a cigarette, glass of beer, or drug experiences are often not the most pleasurable.
But as people keep using, they start getting into the groove, derive more pleasure, and become more addicted.

Baumeister links evil to high-adrenaline experiences such as bungee jumping.
The first time you do it you are super scared and the high you get afterward might not seem worth it.
But as you do it more often, the fear becomes less and less and the high stays the same, compelling you to do it even more often, and possibly from different locations and higher heights.

Similarly, with time it’s possible that the sadists experience less and less upset at causing harm while he starts to derive more and more pleasure.

Why Not Everyone Who’s Experienced Violence Becomes A Sadist?

Baumeister says that it’s most likely guilt that stops many from becoming sadists after they become evildoers for the first time.

Says Baumeister:

If this analysis is correct, then there is a potential sadist inside everyone, but our conscience and our capacity for guilt keeps it hidden.

Sadism and Need For Power

Baumeister says that one need for sadists might be that of eliciting sincere emotions.

Who would have such a need, he asks?

It’s people who seek power.
People who seek power seek an impact on other people’s lives and are miserable when they fail to have an effect on others.

That power might be used for good or for bad, but the end game is similar and it’s to produce an effect.

Says Baumeister:

Rape, sexual harassment, and even children’s teasing can also be understood in terms of power motivation.

Through the victim’s pain, the sadist gains validation of his own power.

Baumeister says that the true sadist does not lack empathy, and empathy helps the sadist derive maximum pleasure.

Are Sadists Evil?

Baumeister says that sadists do not validate the idea that evil is real among humans.
He says that it’s more correct to say that humans come with in-built mechanisms that can be adapted and recruited for evil means.

Criminals Are Short-Term Thinkers

Crime is often the product of short-term thinking, and it offers the emotional thrill that appeals to these types of people.

Criminals tend to show the same lack of control in all other areas of their lives.
For example, they are more likely to drink, use drugs become involved in unplanned pregnancies, get into fights, have car accidents, have unstable marriages, etc.
And if they happen to make some money, they spend it very quickly.

Evil Needs No Encouragement: Only Less Self-Control

Evil does not need to be promoted. It only needs less self-control to emerge.

Self-control can decrease for many different reasons, including:

  • Inconsistent, conflicting, or ambiguous obligations
  • Authority figures overriding personal judgment
  • Focusing on low-level details to avoid dealing with ethics and morals
  • Alcohol or drugs
  • Culture (can dictate where, when, and how much it’s acceptable to lose control)

The media can also help to bring out violent fantasies from people who are already prone to violence (the author quotes FBI expert Ressler, author of “Whoever Fights Monsters“).

If Left Unchecked, Evil Escalate Towards Greater Evil Over Time

The first steps in the direction of evil are usually small.

And if they were to stop there, we would live in a much better world.

Unluckily though, both history and laboratory studies show that violence tends to escalate over time

Several factors come into play, which increase the intensity and gravity of the evil deeds.

Among the factors which flame the spread of evil:

  • Desensitization; people get used to violence, stop protesting it and it becomes the new norm (there are exceptions where people move in the opposite direction though)
  • Mutual revenge: revenge tends to be uncalibrated and much stronger than the initial offense, naturally leading to escalation
  • Getting away with it: when bystanders, police, the international community, or anyone who could have done anything fails to intervene, evildoers feel emboldened (example: Turkey with the Armenians)
  • Lack of reaction from the victim: when the victim fails to react, for example, a spouse who does not leave the marriage, the abuser is likely to feel emboldened
  • Group dynamics: several group dynamics contribute to individuals’ morals being overridden

Guilt, Evil & Rationalization

Guilt is backward-looking, and people will try to avoid behavior they know will make them feel guilty.

If people want to engage in guilt-producing behavior, they will be looking to make excuses before they act.
For example:

  • distancing themselves from the victim
  • labeling the victims as sub-humans 
  • focusing on details and operations
  • numbing with alcohol or drugs

When there is a strong will to believe, some perpetrators leverage small kernels of truth just to keep duping themselves.

People will settle for any vaguely plausible argument when they want badly enough to believe that their hurtful actions are justified.

Guilty is unfairly under assault in our culture.
Guilty is a strongly prosocial behavior that underpins our communities.

Highly individualistic American society, says Baumeister, favors individual-favoring high self-esteem and scoffs at community-supporting guilt.

The Kafkaesque Twists to Save Appearances

To stave off guilt and to feel like nobody was doing anything wrong, German authorities at times prosecuted German camp officers who killed Jews without written consent.

Thus, in the camps where Jews were sent to be killed by the thousands, some were being prosecuted for killing Jews.

But those trials served to remind everyone that there was a method and -and morals- in what they were doing.

Bystanders’ Support of Evil

Not taking sides often means taking the side of evil.

Evil doers will both feel emboldened to keep on going physically, and morally emboldened because if nobody protested then it must not have been too wrong.

Writes Baumeister:

The victims of evil and violence depend on bystanders to bear witness to what is happening and take a stand against it. It is the only way. 

More Wisdom Nuggets

  • Perpetrators feel justified: Perpetrators often believe to be totally or almost totally justified in their violent response
    • Often perpetrators perceive themselves as under attack by their victims
  • Victims see things in black and white: and clear right and wrong while perpetrators see a lot more gray areas
  • Victims’ accounts often describe perpetrators as deliberately malicious: while perpetrators’ account very rarely describe their actions as mean
  • Some evildoers see themselves as victims: Many perpetrators, including serial killers, see themselves as victims of the world
  • Blurred lines of guilt: The lines between victims and perpetrators can often blur in the case of mutual escalation leading to the final act of violence
  • Serial killers are not “genetically different”: serial killers are far from typical and represent a special case, yet some cultures and eras produce more of them, suggesting the environment can push more people into this exceptional behavior
  • Sexual sadism is rare: most people in S&M are there for the masochism. In S&M clubs there are 3 or 4 times more masochists than sadists, and most sadists seem to have acquired it after having to be submissive first
  • We feel guiltier for unintended actions: this is because people prepare their rationalization in advance for their intended wrongdoing
  • Groups of victims are rarely monolithic: people tend to see “X VS Y” and group everyone in those two groups together. But in reality, both victim and aggressor groups are often heavily divided 
evil book cover


  • Could be clearer in condemning abusive men?

The concept that in violent relationships both spouses contribute to the violence is often true.

Yet there is no mention that the majority of controlling people and abusive individuals are men.

That’s still not to say that, in many cases, female partners might not contribute to the violence, but still: most controlling and abusive partners are men.

  • Arthur Shawcross possible mistake?

The author says that many serial killers were bred during the Vietnam War.
He uses Arthur Shawcross as an example, but when I researched him the Wikipedia page says that he never saw active combat.

  • I wasn’t convinced about the “gangs depending on the neighborhood”

The author says that the neighborhood supports the gangs with food and shelter and thus the gangs are dependent on the neighborhood, giving the latter more power.
I wasn’t convinced by that.

  • Heat promotes violence?

The author says that heat promotes violence.
That didn’t sound credible to me, and upon checking, the link between heat and crime seems to be tenuous and no final proof is available.

  • Disagree that the world is getting worse

Contrary to Mr. Pink in his “The Better Angels of Our Nature“, Baumeister believes the world is getting worse and evil is increasing.

I disagree.

However, he might be right that future generations might think of the 20th and 21st generations as evil for their consumption and pollution.

Evil Review

Evil by Roy Baumeister is a monumental work.

It’s one of those rare treasure troves of information that excites me for all the new wisdom it helps me acquire.

Because of its great work in connecting evil and group dynamics, I elect “Evil” as one of the foundational books for The Power Moves.

Check the best psychology books or get the book on Amazon

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