Why are people so mean
interview - Why are people so mean on the internet, Julia Shaw?
Ms. Shaw, let's start with you. Would you say you are angry?
(laughs) No, I am not. I would even say no one is angry. Because there is simply no such thing as evil.
I beg your pardon? I can think of a few bad people ...
The problem is the word. Evil - that is a label that is put on people and that robs them of their humanity. And we use this label in an inflationary way. Killer - bad, rapist - bad, meat eater - bad. It's too easy. We are all human no matter what we did. I am committed to this empathy. There are always reasons why someone does what they do. A murderer can be a nice, empathetic person like anyone else 364 days a year, but he can commit a crime on the 365th day.
That sounds like a trivialization of evil to me.
Not at all. Explanations are not excuses. The science I stand for is not an excuse. I'm not saying that because we can explain atrocities, they are okay. On the contrary: the more we know about evil, the greater our responsibility to prevent it.
But now we have a language problem. I wanted to talk to you about evil today. But you say you don't like the word. Then what are we talking about?
I often use the word "bad". That makes the subjective clear. And people who do something supposedly bad do something bad to themselves and to others.
So let's talk about the bad. In your book, it starts, alarmingly, in the brain. So is there such a thing as a physiology of bad?
At least there are areas of the brain that make it easier for people to do bad. For example, there is an area that enables us humans to empathize. If this is less active, it is easier to commit crimes. However, it becomes problematic when several factors come together. For example, if there is little empathy - and self-control and decision-making are difficult. However, that does not mean that everyone with these qualifications does bad things. On the contrary: these deviations can even be an advantage. At the same time, a normal brain doesn't mean that the person who owns it has to be good.
You just said that the brain's ability to do bad could even be useful. As the?
Because people with these requirements act outside the norm. They can handle it badly by becoming criminals. Or they handle it well because their deviations allow them to be more creative. These people think outside of the framework in which others think.
But if the bad is not physical, why are men so much more bad than women?
It used to be assumed that testosterone was to blame. Indeed, an influence of testosterone can be proven, but this is much smaller than assumed. More recent research suggests that upbringing is the key. Girls are told that they have to suppress their impulses more strongly. With boys, on the other hand, it doesn't matter if they fight each other or aggressively advocate their goals. At some point, however, boys become men and impulse control has never been properly learned.
Why is impulse control so important?
When it comes to the bad, impulse control is absolutely crucial. Almost all of us have bad thoughts, even murder fantasies, on a regular basis. But most people reflect on the consequences of doing so - and suppress their fantasies. Their implementation is out of the question for them. It is different with some who cannot control their impulses. They tend to let their aggressions run free and become criminals more quickly. Alcohol reduces impulse control.
Brain, education, impulse control. Now we have more and more ingredients for a bad person. Can that be sorted out somehow? The most dangerous thing is upbringing, followed by physiological souvenirs and then impulse control?
The bad can never be explained with just one cause. A lot comes together. That's why I'm so angry about this label of evil.
Something completely different: Is label annoyance also the reason that you got married three times?
(laughs) I like challenging social norms, yes. The first time my partner and I got married at the Burning Man Festival, spontaneously, in front of a drunk Elvis. Since then we want to get married every year. The second time was in front of a seven-year-old on a jetty in the lake with a view of the sea, the third time in Rio de Janeiro in front of a stuffed panda.
But doing evil is a completely different question of social norm than that of the wedding. And it's especially tricky because the line on what - sorry - is bad is different for everyone. For some, evil begins with the consumption of sausage, for others it begins with criminal acts. Why is that?
There are many reasons for this. Sometimes it's religious, sometimes it's socializing. We build what we consider normal from what our political group, family and friends think. And we then assume that everyone else thinks that way too. Or at least think so. We rarely question our understanding of evil.
You find that problematic, don't you? Your tone of voice sounds like this.
Yes it is problematic. Because the moment I believe my group is right - and the other is wrong, I assume that it is okay if the other group suffers.
You're alluding to the phenomenon of deindividuation, right? That it is easier for people to do bad things when they don't feel as individuals but as part of a group.
Exactly. This mechanism is used deliberately in war. It is a strategy that helps soldiers not to question their actions ethically. However, it can also be observed in everyday life. For example, when people identify strongly with their company and forget what they are actually doing there.
You describe this mechanism impressively in your book based on the events in the Iraqi military prison Abu Ghraib. The inmates there were tortured while the military laughed and posed in front of the camera.
Yes, this is where deindividuation comes into play. And there is a second mechanism, namely that of dehumanization. That means: people were no longer perceived as people. The inmates of the prison were considered terrorists. And the moment they were considered terrorists, they could be treated like animals. And because everyone took part, there was no guilty conscience.
Is the phenomenon of dehumanization also the reason why people appear so much mean and uninhibited on the Internet than in direct contact?
Studies have shown this again and again. A photo and a name are not enough to get people to think about the aftermath of their messages. That means: We don't get so close to people through the impersonal profiles of others that the inhibitions that exist in personal conversation take hold.
About the person: Julia Shaw
They met in daylight: Julia Shaw, the German-Canadian forensic psychologist, and her “victims”. Shaw approached her in a friendly manner, then immersed herself in a conversation - which the subjects did not know was part of a smuggling act. Not from goods, but from memories. Those that never really existed.
It took no more than three sessions, then Shaw had these memories implanted in the brains of the test subjects. She had the tools for this from Canada, the Netherlands and England. Because that's where she studied, earned her doctorate and did research.
Most recently, she devoted herself to memories. It was known that they are fleeting, as well as that they can be changed. What was new, however, was how quick and easy it is. So Shaw needed nothing more than a few stories from the past of her subjects, obtained from parents and friends. She repeated this in her meetings, added inventions and asked again and again to picture this alleged situation.
Time after time, she created untrue reality - for 70 percent of the test subjects. This result was so shocking that it gave Shaw a place in the international bestseller lists with her accompanying book “The Memory Illusion” (published in German under the title “Das degerische Gedächtnis”) - also because Shaw was addressing a phenomenon that keeps making spectacular headlines. Memories can be wrong even if they are extremely detailed.
This was shown particularly clearly by the so-called Montessori process in Münster in the early 1990s. At the time, a kindergarten teacher was accused of abusing more than 60 children in hundreds of cases. The impetus for this accusation were ambiguous statements by a boy, which gave the parents and the police an opportunity to ask the other children suggestive questions for weeks.
Over time, the children were suddenly able to remember alleged crimes of their previously inconspicuous educator. However, a forensic psychological report ultimately led to the perpetrator's acquittal because it seemed as if all the memories came about later.
Witness statements always harbor the risk of false or altered memories. To avoid them, Julia Shaw created her next highlight in 2017. The native of Cologne took part in the development of an artificial intelligence called Spot. This program aims to help those affected by discrimination and sexual harassment.
Spot is a chatbot that responds to a description of a harassment with detailed questions - for example: “You mentioned a meeting. Who was there? Where did it take place? And when? ”Spot asked one after the other all information that is important for a later testimony. Because in such extreme situations, those affected often cannot separate the important from the unimportant due to emotional agitation. At the end of the day, Spot summarizes the story in a PDF that contains all the relevant facts. Spot cannot and should not check whether the memories are correct in this form.
Shaw himself learned at the beginning of last year what dramatic consequences wrong memories can have. Then she received a letter from prison, eloquent, error-free and in beautiful handwriting. Written by an inmate who asked for one of Shaw's books to be sent because he believed he had killed his father because of a false memory.
In alcohol therapy, the man wrote, he was told that childhood sexual abuse could trigger alcoholism. And one of those he wanted to have remembered when he took his father's life in a fit of anger. Later, in prison, the man realized that he had never been molested. "Rather, he was made to remember things that had never happened," said Shaw.
Julia Shaw takes this incident for the credo of her book “Evil. The Psychology of Our Abyss "(Hanser, 320 pages, 22 euros), which appears on Monday:" We easily forget that the complexity of human experience does not end just because an individual has committed a terrible crime. "
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