As Nebraska becomes the 19th state to abolish capital punishment, researchers out of Kansas State University have been investigating just what makes some Americans more fervently in favor of the death penalty than others. One clear factor, they report in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, is whether someone believes in the existence of pure evil. Those who do tend to be in favor of killing people who've confessed to the crime, regardless of whether the perpetrator outwardly displayed evil or non-evil character traits. "If they believed in pure evil, it didn't matter the characteristics; they were more likely to support the death penalty or life in prison," study co-author Donald Saucier tells the Topeka Capital-Journal.
To test this, the researchers surveyed 212 general psychology students at Kansas State, all of whom had to rate their level of belief in pure evil, defined as involving sadistic motivations. The students then read one of two fictitious newspaper articles about a murder. Both involved a confession on the part of "Mr. Beatty," but he was depicted as two different kinds of criminal: In one version, he was interested in the occult and cruel to children; in the other article, he was a family man who enjoyed camping. Those who believe in pure evil were more likely to want either version of Beatty killed. Why? In a word, demonization, say the researchers. As Saucier explains to Smithsonian, people who believe in pure evil will "just say, ‘You know what? That person did something horrible, which makes that person evil. They are a demon, and we need to get rid of them.'" (Read the "untold story" of the very botched execution in Oklahoma.)