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Distinguished Science Lecture Series Archives

Why People Behave Badly

Barbara Oakley

One of the most difficult problems in the social sciences is understanding why some people intentionally inflict emotional and physical pain on others. Such intentional pain occurs not only on a local level — within families, with “friends,” or in work situations, but also on a national and international scale — Hitler’s Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, and Chairman Mao’s slaughter of millions. Neuroscience is providing the potential for a revolution in our understanding of why “bad” people do what they do.

Professor Barbara Oakley uses evolutionary theory — as well as an unusually adventurous background that has earned her the nickname of a “female Indiana Jones,” to knit together disparate pieces of research that point toward answers to some of the most compelling questions in the social sciences and humanities. Dr. Oakley’s work at Oakland University involves bioengineering in many different contexts, such as the effects of electric fields on cells and the complex relationship between neurocircuitry and social behavior. She worked for several years as a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers in the Bering Sea; she met her husband while working as a radio operator at the South Pole station in Antarctica; and she has gone from private to regular Army Captain in the U.S. military. Her critically acclaimed, tongue-in-cheek titled book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend takes readers on a provocative exploration of the darkest recesses of the human personality.

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