The Current

There may be no difference between your brain and Hitler's, psychologist says

Canadian psychological scientist Julia Shaw has worked extensively as an expert in criminal cases, an experience that has convinced her we shouldn't label anyone, or anything, as evil. In her new book Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side, she argues that even in the worst cases, it's seldom so black and white.

Julia Shaw is the author of Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side

Shaw argues we might have a difficult time distinguishing our own brain from Hitler's because everyone is capable of evil. (National Archives of Canada/Heinrich Hoffmann/CP)

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A psychological scientist, who has served as an expert in several criminal cases, warns we should be careful about defining people as "evil" because there are a multitude of factors influencing those who commit terrible acts.

"I do a thought experiment in evil where I recreate, hypothetically, what Hitler's brain could have looked like," said Julia Shaw, a Canadian research associate at University College London in the U.K.

Although there are some differences in the brains of psychopaths and criminals, "I don't think that you could tell the difference between your brain and Hitler's brain if we were to put them side by side," she told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Julia Shaw is a psychological scientist and author of Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side. (Penguin Random House Canada)

Shaw is the author of Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side. In the book, she argues there is a pushback against trying to understand evil because it's easier to simplify the concept than confront the possibility that we all "have darkness lurking inside" of us, and find ways to prevent us from acting on it.

"We need to understand our own problematic fantasies, our own problematic behaviour, our own hypocrisies," Shaw said. "Because, if we don't, I think we are much more likely to fall into traps where we become, if you will, the monsters we fear."

Shaw cites war as just one example where our failure to confront evil could come back to bite us.

"Who knows what suddenly you're capable of when you're not safe, and you're not fed, and you're highly anxious, and you're in danger," she said.

"And if you haven't … thought about the kind of person you might be able to become, you might follow a totalitarian, authoritarian leader into a disaster."

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.

Produced by Howard Goldenthal.


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