Cruelty book coverCruelty: human evil and the human brain
(Oxford University Press, 2009)

If you’d like to buy the book, please consider Blackwell’s or Waterstones, not Amazon.

Learn more about cruelty from my YouTube videos.


Please note that as an academic, I cannot act as a consultant on cases of suspected cruelty, nor do I offer policy advice to institutions.

I will therefore not respond to such enquiries.

I am not a lawyer, government official or therapist, and whatever my sympathy for sometimes desperate situations, I cannot add to the information available in Cruelty.

About the Book

In Brainwashing, I looked at how people can force others to believe and act against their own interests. In Cruelty, I take on the deeper question of why people want to hurt others.

You may like to think that you could never be cruel. Not really cruel – not the kind of cruelty which can lead a mob to tear a person to pieces, or cause sane, kindly people to torture and kill. Unfortunately, the evidence from history and, increasingly, from science is that you’re wrong. Most of us, in certain circumstances, would fall into the mental traps which lead to cruelty. To understand that, and to realise that cruelty itself is comprehensible — and in principle controllable — is to take the first step towards resisting this worst of human evils.

● translations into Dutch and Arabic

● interviewed by Raoul Martinez for the film Creating Freedom, which was nominated for Best Documentary at the Raindance Film Festival

● evidence-based study of scientific and historical research, with examples of both well-known and lesser-known atrocities

● highly divisive: some people thought it a great book, others couldn’t handle the idea that extreme cruelty could ever be accessible to scientific explanation

Sample Reviews

● “clear and wide-ranging … readable and comprehensive” (the Financial Times)

● “an excellent work … absorbing and thought-provoking … a copy should be given to every politician elected to Parliament” (Times Higher Education)

● “wise and timely” (the Guardian)

● “thoroughly researched, open-minded and humble” (The Catholic Register)

● “Hopefully, Cruelty, with Taylor’s timely highlighting of the topic, will encourage fresh thought on an issue that continues to be central to human existence” (Science)

● “at once profoundly original, thoroughly insightful, rigorously developed, and deeply disturbing. This is a work of fundamental importance that should be widely read” (James A. Moses Jr. in the <span American Psychological Association’s PsycCritiques review series)


Human beings can be gentle and loving, but we can also be extremely cruel. History suggests we always have been; recent horrors confirm that we still are. The twentieth century, which gave us remarkable advances in science and public health, also brought vicious conflicts which killed millions of soldiers and millions more innocent civilians. In the twenty-first century, despite changes in the type and frequency of conflicts between states, we seem no nearer to eliminating the scourge of cruelty. From domestic violence to the atrocities of warfare, innocents continue to suffer and die because other people want them to. Why? What makes us cruel, and can we do anything about it? Cruelty is at the heart of human harm doing, but cruelty itself is a neglected topic compared with violence, genocide, sexual abuse etc. Yet what unites all these forms of harm doing is the deliberate choice to hurt and kill. In Cruelty, I consider that choice, examining the factors which influence a perpetrator’s decision to be cruel. Drawing on the latest research from psychology and neuroscience, I explore cruelty as a scientific phenomenon, setting it in the context of human evolution and current understanding of brain function. Noting the moral context of cruelty, I describe the beliefs and emotions which can lead people to behave cruelly, the risk factors for cruelty, and what we can do to reduce it.


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