Sith Psychology 101 By Wil McCarthy

 Wow. We’ve been watching Star Wars for 28 years now, believing it was the Adventures of Luke Skywalker. But here at the end (or rather, the middle), we find it was the Tragedy of Darth Vader all along. Poor Anakin, snared by the Dark Side like a tiger in a tar pit! The apocryphal Darth Vader blog offers a glimpse of how Vader himself feels about all this, but it leaves the most important question unanswered: If there was good in him all along—a remorseful Anakin struggling to escape from that foul, black shell—why did it take so long to find its expression? What exactly is the Dark Side, that is has such power over such an otherwise strong-willed person?

To answer this question, we first have to acknowledge that there are different kinds of badness. In order of severity we have cowardice (not helping others for fear of getting hurt), indifference (not helping even when it costs you nothing), greed/entitlement (harming others in order to help yourself), vengeance (harming others to punish them for past wrongs) and malice (harming others for sport or to relieve frustration). With all due respect to Pope Gregory I and his seven deadly sins, I’ll classify envy, lust and gluttony as forms of greed.

All of these traits are natural, occurring throughout the animal kingdom, but in the modern world we define “evil” as a surrender to these animal temptations. We all understand this, and to a certain extent we excuse and even admire it. It’s all in the terminology: Is the man who runs from danger a coward or a survivor? Is the do-nothing bystander prudent or negligent? Is the business mogul a robber or a builder, the rock star a bold hedonist or a sloppy drunk?

It’d be nice to think that malice, at least, was inexcusable in polite society, but remember Grant Williams as The Incredible Shrinking Man? Once he got small enough, his own darling kitty saw him as an animate cat toy, and he barely escaped with his life. Reality bears this out; captive large cats do sometimes maim or kill their owners—either by accident or by deliberate attack, as magician Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy discovered the hard way. In most U.S. states it’s illegal to keep tigers without a license for this reason: When you get right down to it, they’re among the most selfish, hedonistic and potentially malicious creatures on the planet. And we love them for it. Conversely, someone who always takes risks is called a maniac or a fool. Someone who always helps others is called a chump. Someone who gives all her money away is broke and powerless, an easy mark, and if there isn’t a mean bone in her body, she’ll also be accused of having no sense of humor.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad there’s good in the world, and we could certainly use more of it. But when Capt. Kirk’s anger and appetites were torn away in a transporter accident, all he could do was act smarmy and fret in his chair while his crewmates froze to death on the planet below. Without a touch of malice, of lust and greed and wrathful vengeance, we’re all like that: useless and doomed. And this, of course, is the real problem with evil: It exists in all of us. Quick, easy and seductive, it’s as much a part of our life support system as breathing and eating. Emperor Palpatine is right: Anger really does make us strong.

B-b-b-bad to the midichlorians

But where exactly are the roots of evil? What causes it to simmer quietly in one person and blossom tragically in another? One possibility is fate. Genetic destiny. Are some people simply born bad? If Anakin is the Chosen One, conceived by the microscopic midichlorians for their own purposes, then was he simply doomed from the outset? Maybe. Genetic disorders like double-Y chromosomes certainly do have a huge effect on violent behavior, and stupid people commit more violent crimes than smart people do. But smart people commit more white-collar and institutional crime, and since criminals like that are less likely to be caught and convicted, there’s no good way to measure who, in the end, does more harm. Overall, stats on the biological and adopted children of criminals suggest that heredity accounts for about 25 percent of criminal behavior. I.e., if you clone a criminal, the clones will have criminal tendencies as well, and about a quarter of them will give in to the urge.

Still, the other three quarters won’t, and herein lies a mystery. What governs the outcome? No one really knows, but a number of models have been proposed, which I’ll summarize here in my own words. The karma model insists that bad environments beget bad people. Abuse or neglect your kids, and you’ll end up with abusive, neglectful adults. Steep people in a blighted environment of crime and ugliness, and they’ll respond in kind. Did Anakin’s childhood as a slave amid the scum and villainy of Mos Eisley seal his adult fate? Did watching his mother die force him, in some way, to become a killer himself? The scientific answer is no; when the children of law-abiding parents are adopted into criminal families, only about 12 percent of them turn to crime, vs. 10 percent for children raised in noncriminal households. Interestingly, when the children of criminals are raised by other criminals, their arrest rate jumps to nearly 40 percent. This suggests that bad environments have little effect on naturally good people, but dramatic effects on naturally bad ones.

This makes a certain sense, but it also implies that people are machines, incapable of making rational choices. Is all human behavior—and, by implication, all of history—predetermined? Economists tend instead to favor the self-interest model, arguing that people are rational agents who constantly and unconsciously solve math problems in our heads. This might sound far-fetched, but in fact a handful of simple rules can lead to all sorts of rich and complicated behavior. Armed with an innate sense of supply vs. demand and risk vs. reward, people really are pretty good at recognizing a good deal when they see one. Crime can be an economic decision: Stealing offers wealth without hard work, while violence instills fear in potential squealers or competitors. According to economics, it’s only the chance of getting caught and punished that keeps us all from being criminals.

Certainly, after experiencing both the dark and light sides of the Force, Anakin Skywalker was in a good position to make an economic judgment. Is the Dark Side more powerful? The Sith lords have sworn it is, and since a handful of them were able to kill off all the Jedi and seize control of an entire galaxy—twice!—their claim does carry some weight. Then again, the love of a single Jedi was enough to topple the empire, so I’d call it a draw. Anyhoo, no one disputes the fact that the dark side is easier to master, and from an economic standpoint this makes it a good investment. Equal power for less work, right?

But by this logic, we should all be evil. The argument fails to account for empathy—the desire not to harm. In the real world, torturers often report feelings of pain and remorse, which they resolve (or at least sublimate) by getting angry at their victims. “How dare you put me in this position? I don’t like doing this. Just talk, damn you!” In the Star Wars universe, this anger feeds the Dark Side and increases the power of the Sith. But it’s costly in terms of manpower (I mean, how many admirals can you strangle in a month?), and it makes the Sith philosophy—however lofty in principle—hard to agree with in practice. For most people, no power is worth that price.

Crime is still a choice

Which brings us to the nobility model. Ever since a 1940 treatise by mathematician John von Neumann, a field of science called game theory has been exploring the gray area among probability, economics, behavioral psychology and computer science. By studying the behavior of players in certain carefully constructed games, scientists have learned that most people—close to 80 percent—will act against their own best interest if it benefits a group of people they identify with. In a world where only the fittest survive, people are even willing to pay the ultimate price—laying down their lives—to serve the greater good. This is obviously not a survival trait for the individuals who die, but groups or societies who behave this way have a huge advantage over those who don’t. In a fair fight the smart money is on courage and honesty, not cowardice or cheating, and over thousands of years this should tend to breed bullies and cheaters down to a manageable level. Unfortunately, it’s possible to be brave, honest and evil. Like the Nazis, the Sith believe their cause is noble, and the Jedi are simply too weak to pursue it. So nobility doesn’t fully explain the ratios of Sith and Jedi among us.

For that, we can look to the free will model, which insists that everything is a choice. Yes, we feel temptation. Yes, we feel anger, see economic advantage, occasionally feel like screwing over our fellow man. So what? The choice is still ours, to give in or stand firm. There’s actually not much science to support this idea, but most people seem to believe it on a gut level. Like religion, our justice system is balanced on the twin pillars of responsibility and redemption; if crime is a choice, then it should be possible to turn people away from it, encouraging a life of virtue no matter how far they’ve strayed. Unfortunately, even after lengthy “rehabilitation,” about 70 percent of violent criminals are arrested for new offenses within three years, and some percentage also presumably commit crimes but aren’t caught. If free will exists, clearly a majority of criminals are simply evil by choice.

But this model doesn’t seem to apply to Darth Vader, who protests to Luke that he doesn’t have any choice in the matter. The Dark Side empowers, but also commands, removing (or at least blunting) the free will of those who surrender to it. We might call this the demonic possession model. “The devil made me do it, I’m not responsible for my actions, and no forgiveness or redemption is necessary if the evil inside me can simply be expelled.” On the face of it this may seem a rather medieval notion, but in fact the modern world recognizes intoxication, addiction, mental illness and even temporary insanity as limiting our capacity to gauge right and wrong, or to control our behavior. Under some circumstances, we really can commit evil acts for which we’re not legally or morally responsible. Does Anakin deserve the benefit of the doubt here?

Probably not. Ben and Yoda may have welcomed him to Jedi Heaven at the end of Episode VI, but Anakin’s still a serial killer, and the families of his victims deserve better justice than that. Even if the devil made him do it, even if he had a rough childhood and a wonky genome and fell in with a bad crowd, even if the opportunity looked promising and the cause seemed righteous … no one forced him to pick up that red saber and open his heart to murder and oppression. Ultimately, whether science can prove it or not, there is one Force we all believe in: the power to choose between right and wrong.

Sources:Personal Interview: Steven L. Lopata, former large cat handler, Safari Park, Greenbriar ARFarinato, Richard: “Love Does Not Conquer All When it Comes To Big Cats as Pets,” “The Whims and Dangers of the Exotic Pets Market,” The Humane Society of the United States

Gottfriedson, Michael R. and Hirschi, Travis: “A General Theory of Crime,” Stanford University Press, 1990

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics,

Shermer, Michael: “The Science of Good and Evil,” Owl Books, 2005

Wikipedia: (“Evil,” “Sith,” “Ultimatum Game”):

The Internet Movie Database (

The Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004 Edition (“recidivism”)

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other “really cool stuff” he can’t tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov’s, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon “Best of Y2K” The Collapsium and, debuting this month, To Crush the Moon. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter, is now available in paperback.


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