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Why is it hard to believe that some people are evil?

Why our brains insist that clearly barbaric behavior must be a delusion
A special section of Yad Vashem that pays tribute to the Righteous of the Nations. (Naama Bar-Am)
A special section of Yad Vashem that pays tribute to the Righteous of the Nations. (Naama Bar-Am)

The other day, I received a phone call that caused me to think hard about human nature. The call was from Shulamit Imber, the pedagogical director of the International School for Holocaust Studies at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

Shulamit Imber had read my book, Embracing the Unknown: A Fresh Look at Nature and Science, which is about the wonders of nature, as viewed through the eyes of modern science. In the early part of the book, there is a section that lays out the various sources of our knowledge. It describes how we know what we know. It also set the stage for a description of the scientific method, the process by which we discover how nature works. Understanding the scientific method is critical for our trust in the vast body of knowledge produced by scientists. The book describes subjective sources of knowledge, such as personal experience, as well as objective sources, such as scientific experimentation.

One important source of information that we rely upon heavily is familiarity from past experience. If we are familiar with something, we are more likely to trust it, as Nobel-winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky found in their research[i]. On the flip side, if there is no precedent, then it is very hard for us to trust the information as true.

Shulamit Imber has spent her entire professional career researching and educating about the Holocaust. As she told me on the phone, there is good documentation that witnesses to mass killings by the Nazis in 1941 returned to Jewish towns and ghettos. In one account from Dr. Meir (Mark) Dvorjetsky, a physician in the Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania, a young woman came to him with a bandaged arm and a look on her face that made one think that she was mentally insane. At that time, the Jews in Vilna (now called Vinius) were told by the Nazis that many others were being taken to the nearby Ponary (now called Paneriai) forest to a work camp. The young woman said that she escaped from Ponary — it was not a labor camp, but mass extermination site. The doctor did not believe the woman at first, but then unwrapped her bandaged arm to reveal an infected bullet wound. After caring for her wound, the doctor announced to the people in the ghetto that they had been lied to, and that the Ponary site was for mass killing. The people refused to believe Dr. Dvorjetsky, claiming that the woman must be either delusional or simply exaggerating[ii]. Indeed, evidence showed that Ponary was a mass extermination site, claiming 70,000-100,000 lives[iii].

The Yad Vashem staff is faced with a common question. Since eye-witnesses to Nazi atrocities managed to escape and to return to the Jewish towns, why were they not believed? In the case described before, why did the Jews in the Vilna Ghetto refuse to believe the young woman’s account of mass murder, even when validated by the trusted physician? Indeed, it is difficult to understand. Even though their options for action were limited, knowledge of the true meaning of the Nazis’ lie, “we are sending you to a work camp,” is important information. It is certainly in peoples’ interests to know the truth.

The typical answer is that the European Jews most of the time simply did not believe the reports from the few refugees who managed to escape the extermination sites. Members of youth movements in Eastern Europe stand out from other Jews and did believe that mass extermination against the Jews was taking place. The horrific stories about mass extermination and gas chambers were so far from the experience-base of the people that the refugees who reported on them were often dismissed as mentally disturbed and delusional. It is like the time in the 1960s when there were many reported sightings of spaceships and aliens supposedly threatening our planet. Many people found it a curiosity, but the mainstream simply dismissed the ‘witnesses’ as unreliable and somewhat crazy.

In the case of the Germans, people were also influenced by the prior impression that Germans were a cultured people, producing much of the world’s music, art, literature, and science, in the early twentieth century. In that light, the stories of the refugees describing crimes against fellow man that were worse than anyone had ever imagined went against the prior image of the German people. It was hardly believable to think that a cultured people turned evil. It is as if you suddenly found out that a respected member of your community was a rapist or child molester – you are likely not to believe it.

To Shulamit Imber, the typical response made sense with what she read in Embracing the Unknown. A major source of knowledge is familiarity from past experience; and lack of familiarity would lead to distrust of the information. So, people found other explanations for the information, rather than the unlikely and unthinkable truth. It seems that this unfamiliarity worked against the tide of the evidence. Civilized people are not familiar with diabolically evil characters, except from fictional books and movies.

And, we do not easily accept that other civilized people are only civilized on the outside, while barbaric and evil on the inside. Consider that society is built on the assumption of mutual trust. If we were to suspect everyone else as evil and interested in our harm, the distrust would make it difficult to function. We are all aware of people who cheat and lie to protect their own interests, but few of us have been exposed to evil-doers who attempt to destroy you for its own sake.

Our brains are remarkably efficient at processing information, but the weight that we give each element needed to make a decision is critical. We know that the strengths of the connection between nerve cells vary depending on how much that connection is used. This feature of the brain is called neuroplasticity. The more times the nerve cells communicate, the stronger the connection — that means that the next time the same information comes along, it is more likely that the circuit will activate. In the case of decisions, the more familiar that we are with a fact, the more easily it is integrated into a thought pattern. This a type of learning that uses self-altering connections in the brain. Once established, the familiar fact is part of your thought patterns. But, when still unfamiliar, the fact is treated as foreign and less reliable by your brain.

So, our brains are built to trust what is familiar and to distrust what is not. Knowing that, we need to exert extra mental effort to objectively evaluate the facts related to supposedly evil acts. If found to be true, we need to overcome our innate physiological tendencies to accept the sad fact that there are evil people in this world.

[i] Kahneman and Tversky described the Availability Heuristic, a related phenomenon whereby things that are more familiar are more readily recalled. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Availability_heuristic (Accessed Jan 31, 2018)

[ii] Dvorjetsky M. Jerusalem to Lithuania in Happiness and Holocaust. Tel Aviv. 1951. Also recounted in http://www.deathcamps.org/occupation/vilnius%20ghetto.html (Accessed Jan 31, 2018)

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ponary_massacre (Accessed Jan 31, 2018)

About the Author
Ely Simon is a neurologist with a passion for educating others about the complexities of the brain. He specializes in developing pioneering approaches to diagnosing and managing brain diseases. In 1984, Simon graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering. He received both a master’s degree in biomedical engineering and a medical degree from Case Western Reserve University. He began his training in neurology and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and completed it at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Simon has served on the faculty of the Department of Neurology at the Tel Aviv Medical Center in Israel and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He currently lives in Israel with his family.
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