Dr Julia Shaw on evil, psychopaths and mental health
Read the full transcript of our Science Focus Podcast interview with Dr Julia Shaw about why people do bad things – listen to the full episode at the bottom of the page.
Sara Rigby: Can you please tell us a bit about your research?
Dr Julia Shaw: So I'm Dr. Julia Shaw. I'm a criminal psychologist at University College London. I do research on false memories and the science of evil. And a little bit of research on bisexuality now.
SR: So your book is called Making Evil. What is evil?
JS: So as far as I'm concerned, evil doesn't exist. So the reason is called making evil is cause I like the Friedrich Nietzsche quote, thinking evil is making evil. And so to me, evil is at most useful as a subjective concept, maybe as a philosophical or religious one, but it basically has no place in science.
And usually when we use the term evil, we use it specifically to dehumanise others and to justify atrocity against them. So stop using the word instead, try to understand why people do bad things and why those people could be you. Well, you could be those people.
SR: Why is evil subjective? Why is it a subjective concept?
JS: Well, I mean, for one, I think we all think of ourselves as good and other people as evil, we don't usually use this term to describe ourselves. And within this process, I think what that does is it allows us to do mental gymnastics whereby we justify bad behaviour because we all behave badly sometimes.
I mean, whether that's, you know, eating meat, even though you think that that's probably ruining the planet and bad for animal welfare or acting aggressively or violently towards people you love or towards strangers, whether that's being a troll online or worse.
I mean, all of us have a gradient, if you will, of bad behaviour that we exist on. And I doesn't think that it takes less than I think we assume to push us into really, really bad behaviour. So the term I use in my book, Making Evil is the banality of murder, for example.
So stolen a bit from Hannah Arendt, talked about the banality of evil.
SR: Is there really nothing that we can all universally agree on as being evil?
JS: No, nothing.
And the reason is, I mean, the saying that I think it fits best with us is one man's terrorist, is another man's freedom fighter. I mean, it's it really is a matter of perspective in terms of when and why we justify behaviour.
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And the worst things we can think of at the time that people were committing them, presumably what wasn't going through their mind is I'm doing this because I'm a horrible person and I'm evil.
They found some way in the moment to either say it was necessary and it was some sort of necessary harm or that it was even justified that it was on the side of good. Right. That they're fighting.
This is the whole point of if you feel like you're fighting evil, I mean, you can you can you can yourself in that moment feel like a bit of a superhero because you dehumanise this individual or these individuals so far that you feel like you're doing God's work to get to destroy these people.
So, no, I think any act. In and of itself, there's nothing that is always going to be evil.
SR: So why do humans like the concept of evil so much? Why do we. Why do we apply it to so many people and actions?
JS: Because it's easy. Because our brains are lazy, because we like and we've been sold this idea of black and white, good and bad.
I mean, from middle on, children's books are all about, you know, the the good protagonists usually fighting some sort of evil. I mean, this is such a fundamental way of looking at the world that it takes quite a lot of effort to deconstruct it and instead to look at people.
So, for example, for me, some of the people who I would consider the worst and who I struggle the most empathise with are racists and people who behave in really sexist ways. People who, you know, take to the streets and shout white supremacy.
That, to me, is so hard to not dehumanise. I mean, it's really easy to dehumanise those who we perceive to dehumanise others. Right.
So I basically hate them because they are dehumanising other people. But in the process, I am dehumanising them. And that's the problem. And so and it's in those moments where we all feel like our hatred is justified.
You need to take a step back and go, wait, what am I doing in this moment and what's happening here and what might go wrong if I take this to. The conclusions are where I might go without thinking.
And so just taking back, trying to see the humanity in every single path, no matter what they done, are capable of and trying to connect with them and ultimately prevent harm.
Hopefully, lofty goals want to prevent evil.
SR: So the concept of evil is often, in our minds, so closely linked to the idea of sin. Do you think sin is a meaningful concept?
JS: Psychologically speaking, I'm an atheist.
For me, I think sin is a problematic term, this is even more so the case, cause, I mean, being an atheist would make me a sinner in many people's eyes, being bisexual and being attracted, so be queer, being attracted people of multiple genders would certainly make me a sinner.
It would it make me criminal if I act on it in many parts of the world. I think that this concept might be useful for for some people who believe in gods or gods. But I think, again, it is very easy to to abuse that concept and to shame people into denying or hating parts of themselves.
And it's, again, easy to then use that to justify atrocity towards people. So I'm I'm very cautious with these kinds of extreme moralistic judgements that we sometimes place on other people or ourselves.
SR: We can still think of sin as a concept, as a way of of setting up a sort of set of rules of right and wrong, good things, of bad things. So why do you think that we do things that we know are bad?
JS: Why do we do things that we know are bad? Why are we hypocrites?
It is in some ways the core question that I wrestle with in Making Evil. So I mean, end in bad people. And in our new podcast, some he sounds. Why do we do things that we know are bad? Partly because it's really hard to make good decisions all the time. And again, going back to something like eating meat, why do I eat meat? Because it's tasty and because it's easy.
Because it's there. Most menus, most friends, most people eat meat. And so eating meat is easier than not eating meat. And I mean, this is speaks volumes as to why it's important also to create ethical pathways that are default in other ways. So in other words, making sure that the path of least resistance, which is the path for most often most likely to go in society, is one that is ethically cogent and hopefully results in positive outcomes.
So making vegan options default, for example, rather than the abnormal choice rather than something, you have to go hard for making, you know, products that are created and really problematic, underpaid, horrible conditions, making that harder to access, more expensive, not the cheapest, easiest option.
And so so those are some of the systemic issues that I think ultimately cumulatively lead to the greatest harm in the world. It's not my individual decision whether I'm going to lie to my partner. That's not going to make huge amounts of impact on the world necessarily.
But those kind of systemic issues do. And then a larger issue. So when we talk about politics and political divisiveness and rhetoric that's used to get people to hate other people there as well. It's. Just making sure that there's safeguards in place that make that harder to do so, make it harder to spread hate and easier to spread love.
That sounds so cliche, but ultimately, I do think the world can just benefit from that.
SR: So let's talk about something that has a bit more precise scientific meaning, psychopaths. So what precisely is a psychopath?
JS: So a psychopath is a term that's used by psychologists and it's usually refers to someone who's been diagnosed as a psychopath. And you are diagnosed as a psychopath when you meet a number of criteria on a checklist. And those criteria specifically include behavioural and sort of emotional pieces. So there's a psychology internal piece.
Then there's the external piece and how people behave. And the one that most psychologists are interested in, the piece of the whole construct of psychopathy is the lack of empathy. So it's it's an inability to connect with others and feel other's pain specifically. But also, Joy, the reason why that's relevant is that if you don't have any empathy, it's easier to hurt people, basically.
And in that, it doesn't mean you're going to hurt people, but it makes it easier because most of us that's a deterrence for our behaviour. As if you're sad. I feel sad. I don't wanna make you sad. But if I don't feel sad when you feel sad, that doesn't have any effect on me. And there have to be other barriers to my bad behaviour.
So set up the kids.
We call it conduct sort of Elysium streets. So it's also a term we use exclusively for adults, sometimes teenagers, and we don't use it for kids, these different terms. And that's on purpose. Psychopathic kids, if it's used, don't actually exist. The courses are kids with callous, unemotional traits, which again is a lack of empathy, low emotions.
SR: All psychopaths born or are they made by their environment? Do we know?
JS: We don't really know. We know that callous unemotional traits, these childhoods, this childhood sort of core piece of psychopathy. We know that kids display these at a very young age. So in infancy already, we can see callous and emotional traits. We can see in, you know, increased rates of aggression, for example, behaviour problems. Sort of what you might call a difficult kids.
That is sort of that can go in the direction psychopaths so they can grow into psychopaths, but most don't. So this is also what's interesting is that quite a lot of it does seem to rely on socialisation. And so if you end up growing in a prosocial ramp in the personal household, you are more likely to then learn the rules of social behaviour.
For example, learn learn that this is a good way to behave, what good behaviour is and what the benefits are that come with it. And that can overcome some of these callous unemotional traits that go away. And so most kids who have Karlsen emotional traits do not grow up to become psychopaths.
But as far as I know understand, all psychopaths have callous unemotional traits in childhood.
SR: So how can we tell if someone's a psychopath? Is it just this checklist or are there any other ways to try to determine if someone else is a psychopath?
JS: I mean, people sometimes joke that an ex is a psychopath. Also, while we're here, while we're on this concept. Don't use the term sociopath. This is not a term that psychologist really is. It's antiquated. Was sort of the predecessor to associate psychopathy. Doesn't have the same thing.
So please stop calling people sociopaths.
Not a thing. Psychopaths. I mean, if someone is so, again, this callous and emotional, so has low empathy. So if they don't cry watching sad movies, if you don't see any signs that they're picking up the emotional cues that others are giving, that can be a problem. Then there's their manipulative or deceitful if they have a parasitic lifestyle. So maybe they. This person is known for moving into people really quickly and taking advantage of people.
These are the kinds of things that can fall into psychopathy. But here there's also a really interesting piece of it is that there is anti-social psychopaths, which is what we think of. We think of serial killers. We think of, if you will, bad people, the epitome in some ways of bad people.
But there's also something called prosocial psychopaths. And those are people who have the same lack of empathy and some of these other affective pieces, but they don't act in an impressive way. And that, I think, is really interesting. And that is usually who you're more likely to see in, for example, business settings.
So maybe if you're CEOs, a bit of an apple might be a psychopath.
SR: Right. So you is saying that there's some children who displayed these these traits of three psychopathic traits, but then they grew up in pro social household, so they ended up. All right. Is it possible that they actually turn into these pro social psychopaths and we just don't diagnose it?
JS: Yes, quite likely. In fact, I'd say so does. There has been some neuroimaging research on children with and emotional traits and psychopaths. And there do seem to be some structural differences. So you can quite reliably tell the difference between a psychopathic brain and on psychopathic brain.
However, even that's psychopathy is on a scale. We have some talked about subclinical psychopathy, which basically are higher up or somewhere on the scale of psychopathy. But you don't need to go over the threshold, which would make you give you that label of psychopath.
So it's all on a scale. So that that matters as well in terms of how we talk with the construct. Yeah.
I mean, if you fear kids and you grow up and your empathy might still be low, but if you know the rules and you choose to be pro socially, it could be professionals like Beth.
SR: All right. So it's not like you're either a psychopath or you're not. You can be sort of a bit psychopathic.
JS: You can be a bit psychopathic. So in the literature and according to a psychologist would say, you do need to meet a threshold, although even there there's disagreement.
So the number of criteria you need to meet is different in North America and in Europe is also fascinating. But yes, everything else you would call subclinical psychopathy. So you're not a psychopath, but you have your high on psychopathic trait or you're low on psychopathic traits.
SR: Is there any way to cure someone of psychopathy? Is that even a meaningful question?
JS: Not that we know of.
Again, you could change behaviour perhaps by changing incentives or convincing people that's you acting well towards others is better for them and for society that that you could do.
But it doesn't seem to be the case that you can teach empathy in terms of the way the brain functions.
So you can't make the brain feel empathy if it doesn't have the capacity to do that. And this is whereas psychopathy sometimes also taken in the same context is that autism spectrum disorder, sometimes where it is just there. There's just a piece missing in terms of the emotional component that you probably can't get back. What you can do workarounds.
SR: Have you ever met a psychopath?
JS: I probably have met psychopaths. I mean, the estimate is that about one percent of the population meets the criteria for psychopathy, which is a huge number. That being said, one percent is sort of the number that psychologists use when it's more than zero and it's quite low.
So, I mean, it is a very rough estimate, but I've definitely met people who are very low empathy and who are quite manipulative. There was a time when I was worried that I was a psychopath.
I yeah, I, I don't know. But I got into my head when I was doing my PhD. That's. Maybe, maybe I am, because I can deal with the difficult subject matter and that I am much more interested in the perpetrators rather than the victims of crime. So I'm interested in what motivates people to do these bad things.
And so I thought maybe, maybe it's me, but I think I might. That it is psychopathy tests, as you then do as a psychologist. And I think it's actually the opposite. And I think this is what I'm currently advocating for others as well, to be more empathetic.
So specifically to intentionally and repeatedly put yourself in the shoes of others and to try and feel what they would have felt in those situations, because that's how we reintroduce humanity into people who we often strip of it.
And so. Yeah, but but I never worked with offenders directly. I worked with the police, the military. I work with people who do interviews and interrogations. I don't really work with offenders.
SR: So I think you've mentioned already that psychopaths aren't necessarily perpetrators of violent crime. Is that right?
JS: Correct. Most aren't.
SR: So we usually think of violent criminals as being men. But obviously, that's not always the case. So is there any sort of different profile that we would that we would see if we were looking at a female violent criminal as opposed to a male one criminal?
JS: Yes. So this stereotype that men are violent offenders is is correct and that the overwhelming majority of violent crime is perpetrated by men in the world, but also in the UK. On top of that, most victims of violent crime are also men. This is sometimes, I think, something maybe because of how true crime stories are chosen and the disproportionate number of true crime stories that represent a man killing a woman.
I think make it feel like this is really common. It's really not. It's obviously all this is more common than it should be. But that's obviously all murder is bad, especially when it's not within a more context, in which case it's not murder anyway.
Yeah. With female violent offenders, we do see a bit of a different profile. But what's particularly fascinating to me is that. It could still be anyone, so anyone.
We are all capable of violence. I mean, in some ways our species is built for it. They give us sort of ancestral environments and how we had to fight each other. We have to hunt. We had to you know, there was a lot of tribal situations where we were fighting over resources. This is very much in our DNA to be able to do this.
And, you know, desperate situations can lead to desperate reactions and behaviours. But the way we talk about female offenders is dramatically different to men. So with women, we often assume there must be some sort of mental health issue.
We assume maybe she was controlled by men, maybe especially when talk about murder. The assumptions are almost always that must've been some sort of man who forced this woman to murder someone or she was so desperate, which we don't talk that way about men as much. We don't give them context.
We just say, oh, bad man is a bad man and deserves to go to prison was a woman. It's like, oh, something must have gone horribly wrong. Must have had a horrible childhood or must have, you know, must have been provoked.
And I very much wish that we did not sort of contextualising a behaviour for both men and woman and not just for woman. And we couldn't infantilize woman and assume that they aren't capable of making terrible decisions all on their own.
SR: What about children? What makes a child become violent?
JS: So for children, the calllous unemotional trades, sort of pre psychopathic tendencies can certainly lead to worse decision making when it comes to interpersonal situations and often come with sort of worse control over aggression and anger as well.
So in that sense, that can contribute to bad situations and those bad situations can escalate, mirroring social situations.
So we do know that although the cycle of violence, I'm always really keen to deconstruct the cycle of violence, just like the cycle of abuse.
So there's an assumption, and I think most people have this assumption that people who are abused themselves and childhoods are likely to abuse later in life, whether that's physical or sexual abuse, that is not the case in that direction isn't true. So most kids who grew up in terrible situations don't go on to become sort of the people that hated the most. That most of them.
That's the last thing people want. And I think it can make people worried about what they might do if we sort of stereotype mixed dumbs of violence, especially children who are victims of violence in the home. They're very careful that people don't worry about themselves in that way.
But the other way round is true. So for children who act out, if you will, or behave badly, they are disproportionately from violent homes and other abusive situations.
And in some ways, you could say they're mirroring that behaviour that their parents are demonstrating. So later on, as well, this force number of people who go on to engage in domestic violence were themselves in homes where domestic violence was a reality.
But again, it's sort of one it's almost like with psychopaths, like a lot of kids, of course, and emotional traits, but don't become psychopaths. But all psychopaths of health and emotional traits. Right. The same with this is that most people who go on to perpetrate violence in the home themselves, extreme violence in the home, but mostly placements around the home do not go on for violence. Yes. Yes, I see.
SR: And there's quite a stigma around mental health, as you talk about in your book. And people seem to worry a lot that people with mental illness are likely to be fine. And when you know, when you hear on the news about something terrible that's happened, people always say what, the perpetrator was mentally ill.
But I've heard before that mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than the perpetrators. So is that true? Is there any link between mental illness and bad behaviour or a violent crime?
JS: Yeah. So you're absolutely right that we need to be very careful in how we talk about potentially stereotypes, specifically certain kinds of mental health issues. So for one, most people who have mental health concerns are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of any kind of crimes, that specifically violent crime.
The only link between any kind of mental illness are specific symptoms of specific conditions. And so, for example, what are called threat control override symptoms which are common to chronic schizophrenia.
That's the idea that you're hearing a voice, for example, that's telling you to do something that's controlling you and your behaviour and your thoughts. That specifically is related to an increased risk of perpetrating violence. However, that is really rare.
And needless to say, most people who have mental health concerns are not paranoid schizophrenic. So this is such a tiny subset and quite often and certainly that's managed properly then it's also no longer a threat in the same way. But the abuse and the stereotyping and the harassment and discrimination that people who especially have visible mental health concerns.
So people who behave in a way that makes it clear that they have mental health concerns that they experiences is astonishing and needs to change.
SR: Do you think the media's portrayal of people with mental illness has an effect on how we we see mentally ill people and how we perceive them as potentially being violent?
JS: Sure. I think that they're for a long time was a trope of sort of mentally ill, perhaps psychopathic, but often all at once, sometimes even with physical disabilities.
So millions who had all of these things at once. And I think it serves to create and reinforce stereotypes. I mean, on top of that, it was often people of colour or people who are foreign. So it was sort of a xenophobic, ableist...
Oh, I do feel like we've gotten a bit better, but it's still a huge issue. And it does serve especially not the only representation if you've seen a particular kind of mental illness or a particular kind of person, that is, of course, going to be what comes to mind when you then think of that mental illness and you think of these villains. And that's horrible. And that needs to change.
SR: And what about the media's portrayal of of psychopaths? Do you think that's generally accurate or does it does it accentuate certain things or we'll make them out to be worse than they are?
JS: So the media portrayal of psychopaths, I think is, oh, depen. So some are pretty good in that. They do help us understand, like Dexter, for example, which is a TV show about a I mean, a psychopath. And you sort of see in his head a bit and he has a sort of internal monologues. And I think that can help to illustrate some of the facets of psychopathy.
But the fact that he is a serial killer does reinforce that link between psychopathy and crime, which is just overstated. It's not that it doesn't exist. It does, but it's hugely overstated.
SR: You mentioned that you also research false memories. What is that got to do with crime?
JS: So as a criminal psychologist, memory is really important to many cases. So in many cases, the only evidence you have or a really important piece of evidence is memory. And so someone's a witness, a statement or a victim statements, a defendant's claim of as to what happened or didn't happen there, possibly even confession.
And so memory plays a central role in all of these pieces of the criminal justice process. And particularly interesting to me are autobiographical, false memories. So rather than facts, they're memories of our lives. So, again, like a crime, like watching a situation unfold. And it's shocking how wrong people can get even highly important emotional events.
And in my research, I've actually implanted complex false memories of committing crimes. I convinced participants that they committed crimes that never happens. And 70 percent of my sample confessed to these crimes.
And then I showed these videos to people of them confessing. And people couldn't tell the difference between the same person for calling a false memory and a true memory. It's quite clear that it is it has tremendous implications for the criminal justice system.
And it just means that we need to be careful with memory evidence. It's not that it's always all false. It's just that it's very easy for errors creep in, particularly through leading or suggestive interviews.
SR: Have you any have you ever encountered any of these situations where false memories have played a big part in a case?
JS: Yes. I work as an expert witness, and so I probably worked on about 40 to 50 cases. And in these cases, the issue of memories always raised. And it's often a question of did this even happen? And I'd say about half the time I come back, because my my role in the UK especially is to educate the courts in the first instance to give a report to the lawyer who has hired me.
But then if I am to go to court, it's to educate the judge and jury. So I'm I'm not there to prove a point. I'm there to look at the case and see, is this evidence good or not? And I'd say about half the time I'd say there's nothing wrong with this memory evidence.
SR: To the time that potentially is the half the time that potentially is.
JS: Yeah, or there just is. And and how that how it was raised, the situation. Sometimes it's textbook false memory cases where someone had no recollection of something happening or it was impossible until they went into therapy, for example.
So I had a case where someone claimed that they were six months old and they remembered in vivid detail an event that happened. And it's possible it's not a memory you don't eat. That's not possible. Your memory cannot be forms of a complex memory that that lasted all that at that age. And so those are easy ones.
And then the question is, how does that happen?
Imagination exercises, bad therapy. Leading questions basically answered, unfortunately, but it can have tragic consequences for people who think that terrible things have happened to them and their families.
SR: How do you go about picking apart whether something was a real memory or a false memory?
JS: So you can never be sure unless it's impossible. So, again, this sort of before birth memories definitely not real before the age of one. Definitely not real. Later, I would say three to five, because we have something called partial childhood amnesia.
Again, most of them are going to be questionable and problematic. But then we get into poss it's possible to have memories and then it matters more about how they were recalled. So to tell the difference, you remember any false memory, you can rule out the ones that are impossible, easy.
And then it's really a matter of just saying looking for red flags. And so there's a number of things you can point at and say this was good or this didn't go well and good is what spontaneously recalled. Was it prompted by anyone else basically, or wasn't prompted by leading questions? And then bad is memories that generally grow over time. So someone who claims they had size. I also hate the term repression.
The concept of repression also in public consciousness is just again, that's just not really how memory works as far as memory scientists are concerned. It's an antiquated notion of memory that Freud developed, which has mostly been debunked.
SR: So that's the idea that we can have had some sort of traumatic event which we've just sort of suppressed and forgotten about until someone brings it back again.
JS: Yes. So is the idea that our memories are hidden from us.
It's that our brains are intentionally hiding a traumatic memory from us, that you cannot recover until you either work through it or have some sort of therapy typically. And that's just a really problematic assumption and can land you in territory where it's just really unclear whether what you've allegedly recovered is, in fact a real memory or is just the product of leading and suggestive or hypnotic interview methods.
SR: So does everyone have false memories or is this just in the case of, like people who've been to therapists and took this stuff up?
JS: Everybody has false memories. I am 100 percent sure of this. I'm 100 percent sure that everybody has false memories. And not just that, but most of our memories are mostly false. So by that, I don't mean that you don't remember your life at all.
It's more that memory is programmed to remember what scientist called just memory recollection. So we remember in general the gist of, as the name suggests, the gist of what happens. But memories and brains are very bad at remembering verbatim details which are specific, precise details like exactly what something looks like.
I mean, if you close your eyes right now and try to describe the room, you are literally you are going to make mistakes. I mean, this was very, very moved in a week. But that's I mean, it just speaks volumes as to what you were even working with to begin with attention and perception. All these things matter hugely. And that's as good as it's ever going to be. And it only gets more distorted and worth from there and the amount of things we forget. I've tried to fill in later. Astonishing.
So false memories are a common, normal, healthy part of the brain. They sound like a fault. They are not. They're just the brain working with you and trying to, you know, retain only important information rather than all the little details and most memories away. That I create them in the lab and look at them in court settings are the product of a creative recombining of existing memory fragments.
Now, the other term we have for that is creativity, intelligence, problem-solving. I mean, we call this process this flexibility of the brain. Basically, we call that being human. And so important and both memories are a by-product of that creative process.
SR: So is there any way to avoid creating false memories, either if misremembering something that did happen or accidentally inventing something that didn't?
JS: So there's two ways you can avoid false memories. One is recording the situation. So either filming it, taping it or as soon as possible, writing down what happened. So we all have what most of us have phones. And so, for example, taking a voice memo, writing a note, I mean, I do this for everything. I assume you're going to forget that advice, number one for a memory scientist.
Assume you're going to forget, no matter how important, no matter how emotional you were gonna forget and write it down. So recorded outside of your brain. So that's the main thing. The second thing is if you don't have that option. And so I was working, for example, with some military guys who were working with warlords and they couldn't just record their conversation with the warlords.
They were interviewed. So they were trying to figure out where potential conflict could arise because warlords might well go to war with each other. And so it was an intel intelligence gathering exercise. And they couldn't sit there with their microphone and say, hey, Mr. Warlords, who do you hate? And sort of handed over and come back. And who else do you hate?
And where do you think you're going to go know that doesn't happen?
And so instead, with them, it's, again, tried to not come out debrief because there's also a temptation to tell your story immediately to other people who were maybe there as well. Instead, write it down as soon as you can. And again, keep it outside your brain and then maybe talk to others and see if you remember additional details, but always keep the original version that you remembered on your own first as well.
So I guess there's always this piece of advice. Write down.
The best plan is always to to get it out straight away.
Get it out of your brain. Oh, yeah, sorry. And then in the meantime, that's what I was going to say. So these warlike situations, the best piece of advice until you can write it down, until you can get it out of your brain, is to try and really pay attention to the situation and basically be really mindful and presence, because attention is, you know, step one to making memories and then trying to notice weird things.
Notice how things are connected and relate to one another and how information relates to to other information. So trying to make sort of mental maps basically, and then write it down.
SR: Does the brain have any sort of processing speed on this? Because I find that sometimes if I've if I've been having like a sort of along info heavy conversation, if I come out of it straight afterwards and try and tell someone what I was talking about, I find it really hard. I find that I have to sort of sit with it for 10 minutes or so until I can sort of put it all together. You know, that helped me remember it better. Or is it worse?
JS: Yeah. So my advice is usually to record things immediately on your own so that you have that time to process. Also because as soon as you enter a social situation where you're telling the story of someone else, that person has the ability to contaminate how you're telling that story. And there in your memory of it. So this is the same thing that I advise the military guys working with warlords is do make sure that you have a sort of virgin memory that is your is only yours that you've taken the time to process and record.
And also realising that it doesn't need to be in sort of straight narrative line. I think that's a whole memory. Original memory don't work that way. It's that sort of start to finish in the straight line. You bounce around a bit and that's OK.
SR: I see. So, yeah, if you listen to a podcast, Bad People, you and the comedian Sophie Hagan. And that's a true crime podcast, which is really popular. I think in the end, the podcast genre. Why is it do you think that we like true crime so much?
JS: Oh, man. This is the topic of episode one. You're gonna have to listen to that. So true crime.
Why are you so asked about your career? I'm so compassionate. I don't I don't really like true crime. I think the reason why I didn't like your crime better yet. The reason I didn't like your crime is because I think quite often it is sensationalised and it misses some of the really interesting pieces that to me, the interesting pieces are why not then someone speculative guess I want the science.
I want the research. I want to know why, you know, these things happen and why people do these things. I don't necessarily need a colourful description, this person's childhood. So for me, the interest comes from the people who are engaging in bad behaviour, especially very bad behaviour. And why I think for most, your Crompton's is also a piece of it that is sort of.
I mean, there's an argument that we don't have as much negative emotional arousal in our lives. So, again, if we go back to sort of thinking of what our ancestral environment would have looked like, it would've been a lot of danger, a lot of threats. There would have been a lot of ups and downs. And this might be so true. Crime might be sort of looking for that in a safe way. So you're looking for excitement. You want to go in a very raw sense of it.
You're looking for that excitement. You're looking for being scared. Safely. But there is the interest in trying to get into the mind of those people. And then third, there is the desire, I think, to build a community. So there is also a huge to crime community. And I think that part of that community is the identity that we as the true crime community are interested in, something that's a bit dark.
And so that can be something that feels sort of exceptional or unusual about you and helps you connect with other people who are also just in that light. On a fundamental level, it's you know, if we want to be excited, we want understand people's deepest, darkest thoughts and we want to build community tonight.
SR: I've got one last question to you posed as a thought experiment in the book, but you don't actually tell us your answer to the question, which is: would you kill baby Hitler?
JS: If it was certain that he would become Hitler, then, yes, I would kill maybe Hitler.
SR: From your perspective as a psychologist, is it certain?
JS: No, it's not.
So given that it's not certain, given that's you know, that's whether we babies do not necessarily grow up into genocidal, genocidal dictators. But so maybe befriending and maybe intervening, maybe, you know, setting him on a different path, maybe taking away the book on eugenics that he read.
Not letting him read that all seem like better options than killing them.
And there is there's a piece of me always with that question that wonders if Hitler wouldn't have been who he was. Would there have been a version of him anyway? Because he did very much embody a lot of the zeitgeist. And I mean, it was troubling times and some of those thoughts are back. So I think we do need to constantly be on the lookout for xenophobic and evil people who claim that other people are evil.
Got to watch out for those people.
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