Why are some people meaner than others

Psychology: where does the murderous evil in humans come from?

The letter was handwritten, undoubtedly genuine. "Dear mom, dear dad," it said. “I've made up my mind to leave to be independent. I am safe with people who take care of me. You don't have to worry or look for me. That's my decision - after all, it's my life too. "

It wasn't until 24 years later that it became clear: Elisabeth Fritzl, who suddenly disappeared from the small town of Amstetten in Austria at the age of 18, had written the lines in the basement of her parents' house. It was the cellar that her father Josef Fritzl had converted into a multiple security prison. To imprison his daughter there, to starve her, to torture her and to rape her thousands of times.

Evil under the bourgeois facade

When the crime finally came to light in April 2008, astonishment spread. How could the respected businessman who was Fritzl above the earth mix so perfectly in a person with the sadist he was in his subterranean realm?

So perfect that nobody noticed anything all this time? A socially acceptable facade and well-hidden, deeply dangerous aggression apparently lived side by side in Fritzl's person.

Not everyone is capable of acts of this magnitude. But the potential to restrict others, to harm them, to hurt them, is very much in every human being.

What makes people violent

The only question is when exactly dark ideas, feelings and desires become an act that others consider wrong, evil or reprehensible. Researchers have now understood quite well the conditions that make many people violent and some of them particularly violent - and are now testing approaches as to how felons may be treated.

Reinhard Haller understands the discomfort that most people experience when they think of carrying evil within themselves. He is a forensic psychiatrist and has already assessed more than 300 murderers for their culpability.

"Most of us are capable of far more evil than we can imagine," he says. There was good and bad in every human being. You don't want to know anything about the bad ones. “When we read something about criminals, then we suspect that something like that is at least rudimentary in us because it is mirrored to us.” That is why people like to differentiate themselves from violent criminals, personify evil, give it a name.

Josef Fritzl is one such name. Heidi Kastner spoke to him