PSYC 237

The Psychology of Evil

This resource was created by Dr. Scott Roberts with funding from the Maryland Open Source Textbook initiative to provide students in The Psychology of Evil at the University of Maryland a completely free "textbook."

Why is there Evil in the World?

Are some born evil, or do social, environmental, and cultural forces create evil from "normal" people? The scientific study of evil forces us to confront our own misconceptions, our own subconscious, and the psychological forces at play every day that shape behavior, good and evil alike. To engage the field requires not only an integrated understanding of psychological theories and research findings, but also some reflection on your own personal biases and vulnerabilities to becoming a victim, and worse, a perpetrator. In this course, we will explore what science has taught us about why evil things happen and how to reduce evil in our communities.

Learning Outcomes

After successfully completing this course you will be able to:

    • Provide scientific evidence that evil has both physiological and social causes that interact with each other.

    • Analyze case studies of good and evil acts and explain the underlying psychological theories and research findings that inform your analysis.

    • Apply psychological principles to design and execute interventions to reduce evil and increase faith in humanity among strangers in your community.


As we work towards those broad outcomes you will learn to answer more detailed questions such as…

    • How do scientists conduct research on the causes of evil?

    • Why do “good” people (like you) make “bad” decisions?

    • What is the evidence that “normal” people have the capacity for evil behavior?

    • Why do we fail to offer help to others? When does that meet your personal definition of evil?

    • Is the capacity for evil something that evolved as part of human nature?

    • What makes people empathetic & trusting?

    • How can we reduce existing hatred and terrorism?

    • Do violent movies, songs, and games cause evil behavior?

    • How are the brains of psychopaths different from "normal" brains?

    • What are the common types of mass murder incidents, and how does the psychological profile tend to differ for each?

    • And so much more!

Each module page on this site provides detailed learning objectives for the pre-class coursework and our class meetings.

The course is also designed to meet the learning outcome requirements for the iSeries and Scholarship in Practice categories of UMD's General Education Program, as well as the Department of Psychology's program-level learning outcomes.

The link above takes you to the most current syllabus, which is subject to change as necessary. Updates will be announced to students on our course ELMS page.

Explicit Content

Evil, by its very nature, can sometimes be quite disturbing. As we explore the psychology of evil we will read, discuss, and view depictions that are violent and graphic in nature, and intended for a mature audience.

I will not show or say anything for shock value alone, but I do believe it is essential that we remain in touch with the real-life implications and impact of the concepts and theories we are talking about. If you are at all concerned that your comfort level may interfere with your coursework I encourage you to contact me so we can discuss it.

Visit the Office of Extended Studies for information on course scheduling and to enroll.