Philosophers got down to business with the nature of evil for millennia, but immorality may seem like a solved problem these days. Take the case of Brian Kochberger, the prime suspect in a quadruple homicide near the University of Idaho, whose arrest sparked media speculation about the killer’s psyche, as if a proper diagnosis of his personality disorder could mitigate the damage already done. His “psychopathic look” hit the headlines of the British tabloids. New York Times analyzed Kochberger’s self-described sense of ruthlessness as a teenager. Dr. Drew brought in a former FBI agent to discuss Kochberger in the context of the “dark triad”: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.
Understandably, Americans want to help make sense of the senseless deaths that appear on the front pages of local newspapers and make up Netflix’s vast catalog of true crimes. But attempts to characterize evil remain scientifically dubious, say criminologist Jarkko Jalava and psychologist Stephanie Griffiths, co-authors. The myth of the born criminal. When it comes to crime, psychologists often “act very casually,” Yalava says, adding, “We’re working on this folklore level.”
The perpetrator of the murders at the University of Idaho should be convicted, but it’s easier said than done to get into the mind of the killer. Prediction and prevention—the supposed end goal of criminal profiling—is even more difficult. And the spread of quasi-scientific terms for jerks, jerks, and even murderers has far-reaching consequences.
Medicalization Evil, that is, the diagnosis and treatment under the guidance of a doctor of diseases such as “moral insanity” and “criminal psychosis”, dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. Where the clergy once drew the line between good and evil, psychiatrists have begun to take under their wing people who engage in impulsive, destructive, or otherwise unchristian acts.
In the beginning, these forensic doctors explained bad apples with theories such as atavism. Proponents believed that, over time, poor parenting led to the degeneration of the gene pool and the concentration of poverty, crime, and other undesirable traits in certain ethnic groups or social classes. While the theory of degeneration was gradually replaced by the strikingly similar concept of “psychopathy” (literally “disease of the soul”), many fears remained the same: deviants who showed no remorse or guilt exhibited sexual promiscuity and developed a long rap slate, perhaps from a young age.
There are new variations on this theme all the time. “dark triad” invented in 2002 by Canadian psychologists Delroy Polhouse and Kevin Williams, which aims to describe “offensive but non-pathological personalities” including executives, politicians, and bad guys. There are also labels such as antisocial personality disorder, a diagnosis given to people with marked impulsiveness, aggression, and criminal behavior—in other words, a DSM-approved twist on the old “psychopathic” standard.
At first glance, these attempts at categorization seem positive. On the one hand, researchers slowly cracking obvious wrongdoing from the more unintended harm of mental illness. Likewise, it is a relief to be able to use the dark triad to acknowledge how commonplace selfishness really is.
But the shadow of degeneration is still great. In addition to further medicalizing everyday discourse (“Junkies,” Jalava and Griffiths note, “have become “psychopaths” with all the baggage that goes with it), these models support the dubious belief that every person has an unchanging personality—and that these personalities can easily be classified as good or bad. In fact, recent research shows that many people change—and in some cases change dramatically—over the course of their lives. At the same time, many researchers are still critical of historical characterization of personality disorderspartly because it stigmatizes and can hide the injuryand even then it doesn’t lead to clarity directions for treatment.