Should we bomb Syria? Research may predict your answer

A study links the belief that certain people or groups are evil with support for violent responses

By Tom Jacobs
September 11, 2013 4:53PM (UTC)
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This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific StandardThe debate over whether to use military force in Syria isn’t breaking down along predictable political lines. Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans—all are split over whether punishing Bashar al Assad for his apparent use of chemical weapons is a wise course of action.

Newly published research suggests a different philosophical construct might be a better predictor of support for the president’s proposal: Whether or not you believe in the existence of pure evil.


Across four different studies, “belief in evil in people and groups consistently predicted greater support for violent policies, and lesser support for nonviolent policies,” write Clark University psychologists Maggie Campbell and Johanna Ray Vollhardt.

This equation proved true regardless of participants’ political ideology or religious beliefs, the researchers write in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.They argue it is largely driven by belief in “redemptive violence,” which they call “the view that violence is necessary to overcome those who embody evil.”

The first of their studies (which, like the others, was conducted online) featured 349 participants, about two-thirds of whom were women. They responded to a series of statements designed to assess their beliefs about good and evil (including “There are people in this world who are incapable of any type of goodness”), and their support for various violent and non-violent politics (including the death penalty for Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, and the harsh interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo Bay).


Belief in evil “predicted greater support for violent policies, and lesser support for non-violent policies,” the researchers report.

A second study attempted to assess views of good and evil in a more nuanced way. The 357 participants responded to 30 statements related to that topic (including “Even so-called good people have the potential to be evil”). They then were asked about their priorities for the federal budget, how a convicted terrorist should be dealt with, and whether the U.S. government should pay reparations for the damage caused to an Iraq city following a major battle.

“Three distinct factors emerged: belief in evil, belief in good, and belief in everyone’s capability for good and evil,” the researchers report. “Belief in evil was the strongest, most consistent predictor of support for violent vs. nonviolent attitudes in the context of intergroup conflict.”


A final study found that “belief in evil predicts support for violent policies … independently from worldview and ideological variables.” This support was “above and beyond” that predicted by religious fundamentalism or right-wing authoritarianism.

Campbell and Vollhardt caution that correlation is not the same as causation, and that other, unknown variables may be at play here. They note that all of their study participants were Americans, and these results may reflect “cultural norms” rather than universal truths.


They are not passing judgment on people, nor taking a stand on the existence of evil. Rather, they’re simply pointing out the strong connection between support for violence and that specific belief, which psychologists have linked to the need for “cognitive closure” (that is, clarity and resolution as opposed to ambiguity).

So, if you nod in agreement when people from Bill O’Reilly to State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland use the term “evil” in describing Assad, there’s an excellent chance you’ll agree with their conclusion that it’s time to send in the bombs. If that word feels uncomfortably reductive to you, chances are your feelings are a lot more mixed.

Tom Jacobs

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Evil Middle East Pacific Standard Psychology Syria Violence War