According to criminal psychologist Julia Shaw it’s not only normal to fantasize about murdering your boss, but it’s also healthy.
Chances are, you are not a psychopath
Shaw, author of Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side, and an honorary associate at University College London, recently spoke at Cheltenham Science Festival. Her work has explored many themes, though the virtue of empathy seems to be a well she’s particularly fond of. To Shaw, the term is a pluralistic one. Sometimes, employing empathy is easy. Like when you’re watching one of those Sarah Mclachlan commercials with the hungry three-legged dogs, or an ad about relief agency rice for displaced children from third world countries. It’s not exactly a challenge to feel bad for limping puppies or starving children.
But sometimes empathy takes a hair more effort, like trying to observe the nuance in a case like Jeffrey Dahmer’s. Shaw’s bibliography will tell you, that the line separating us from the heinous acts committed by your Bundys or your Dahmers, is a biological one that we have virtually zero say in, but even non-psychopaths occasionally bend to the beckon of violent mechanisms.
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Shaw’s research determined that just about half of the population has fantasized about murdering someone that they know at some point or another-the most common imagined victims being ex-partners and our work superiors. If you belong to the sizable portion of employees that has at one point daydreamed about throwing their boss down an elevator shaft, you just as likely belong to the sizable portion of employees that felt pretty bad about doing so immediately after.
True psychopaths actually only account for 1% of the population. As far as Shaw is concerned, merely being tempted by the ideals of manslaughter alone doesn’t determine psychopathy. In her opinion to evaluate psychosis strictly by the basis of moral vigor is to oversimplify things. She hesitates from calling most murders “evil”, instead describing them as instances where a person loses control. Shaw explained at the Festival how labeling psychopathic acts as evil omits the prospect of serious and compelling discussion.
“It’s a cop-out, it’s lazy — calling someone evil is saying, ‘I’m done with this conversation, this person is subjectively bad, I don’t need to empathize with them, I don’t need to understand them I don’t need to figure out why I might be similar to them in any way,'” she says.
In a Ted Talk from April of last year, titled Time To Rethink Evil, Shaw posed an interesting point about how we keep two sets of books for morality. If you were to ruminate on the worst thing you’ve ever done, you’d likely apply context. Our own misdeeds are intricate affairs, but when surveying the misdeeds of others, we apply a simple binary moral standard. “Murder, thief, liar, monster, evil,” in Shaw’s estimation, are knee jerk labels too often employed when we’d rather not tangle with exercises of empathy.
Tagging this is Shaw’s suggestion that we not be so quick to be ashamed of indulging in morbid ideations. Fantasizing as opposed to acting on these thoughts, occasions our empathy, even for those we hate tremendously.
“Fantasies and empathy exercises are critical to making good decisions, particularly in situations where you don’t have much time. While things are pretty good – that’s the time to do empathy exercises,” Shaw continued.
Not only does exercising fancies of an evil force us to identify our own moral codes, but it also works out our muscles of reasoning. Evolution has taught us that survival favors forethought and planning. The next time you slip into a fantasy about exacting revenge on the guy from your office that hasn’t troubled to say your last name correctly, instead of feeling bad for having the thoughts, be grateful that you have the fortitude not to act on them, and empathetic towards those that aren’t so lucky.
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