In Class: Psych 341

The Psychology of Evil

See, hear, speak evil: No one was covering their eyes, ears, or mouths during this psychology course; the subject was way too interesting.

Course description

This Maymester course offered an in-depth exploration of the psychological research relevant to the study of “evil” behavior. On the first day of class, students discussed evil and came up with a group definition that they referred to throughout the course.

Specific topics covered included psychopathological conditions and diagnoses relevant to evil behavior; epidemiological and etiological evidence concerning psychopathology; and a critical analysis of the distinctions between normal human behavior, moral depravity, and psychopathology. In addition to individual acts of evil, the class studied incidents of genocide, terrorism, and torture. At the end of each class, to balance the heavy topic, students shared “antidotes to evil,” including uplifting stories, anecdotes, and videos, and offered ways individuals can combat evil. Students also were asked to perform a personal antidote to evil during the term—a good deed completed without expectation of recognition or reward—to share with classmates at the end of the term.

Faculty CV

Patricia Brennan, professor of psychology in Emory College, received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1986, and a PhD in psychology from the University of Southern California in 1992. She has been a member of Emory’s Department of Psychology since 1996.

Today’s lecture

One week into the class, students made presentations on notorious evildoers including serial killers Peter Kurten and Ted Bundy; mass murderer Charles Manson; cult leader David Koresh; and Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. In addition to examining their crimes, students presented likely psychological disorder diagnoses for each subject. On the final day of class, groups of students debated two topics: “Are the primary causes of evil internal or external?” and “Can evil be prevented in our society?”

Quotes to Note

“Evil is defined as a selfish human act that defies situational expectations, is intended to harm, and is accompanied by a lack of remorse for actions.”

—Definition of evil as devised by the 2014 Maymester class

“I was on the receiving end of an evil act; the person who committed it had no concern for my feelings. This was not something I had experienced before, and it made me want to do research to get to the root of evil behavior. That was my inspiration for this course.”

—Patricia Brennan, professor of psychology

“There are plenty of successful psychopaths, but having that tendency makes them capable of doing terrible things.”

Jacob Gowler 14OX 16C 

Students Say

“This class was a life-changer. I want to base my career on criminal behavior and what precedes it, so I was completely and utterly immersed in the material. This has helped me take a deeper look at how we classify people and a deeper understanding of how people work.”

Adam Kassem 15C, psychology major

“This is a totally unique class that isn’t offered anywhere else. It is very relevant in the world because there is evil all around us, whether we choose to observe it or not. How we defined evil, and how we can prevent it, molded my perception of evil and how we can take it on as a societal issue.”

Amrita Chatterjee 15C, business major

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