Interesting ethical conversations

The BBC podcast 'Bad People' by Dr Julia Shaw and Sofie Hagen, reviewed by Joh Foster.

Criminal psychologist Dr Julia Shaw and stand-up comedian Sofie Hagen take a humorous look at true crime stories of the past with the aim of dissecting the psychology around the ‘bad people’ that commit evil doings. There is long history of curious fascination with crime, criminals, and the driving factors behind what, for example, motivates one human to kill another. Each episode of Bad People uses a real-life crime to discuss a combination of the non-professional’s assumptions on the why of each case, balanced with the expert’s analysis and scientific rationale using the evidence available. Using dark humour from Hagen, a self-confessed amateur sleuth, and the evidence base provided by Shaw, the pair discuss and try to determine the reasons behind why crimes occur and when investigations go wrong. Bad People seeks to answer the question of ‘Who marries a serial killer?’, uncover the seemingly less socially acceptable murders undertaken by women and children, and delve into the problem of false memories.

Shaw, a psychological scientist specialising in false memories, brings an empirical approach of appraising and evaluating the evidence to support hypotheses meaning that, reassuringly, the episodes do not descend into rumour, gossip and hunches on the cases being considered. Shaw is the sensible foil to Hagen’s offbeat stance of reading more into the things that are not said rather than referring to the actual evidence. Shaw challenges Hagen’s point of view which is amusing but also important as it enables the series to retain the scientific edge.

What strikes me with each episode, is the realisation of my own bias towards each case, and the ethics that sit behind these. Episode 2, When Women Kill, for example outlines the gender bias in favour of women (at last!) that results in them receiving lesser sentences. Episode 4, Your Darkest Fantasy, meanwhile, covers the story of a police officer jailed after making his homicidal ideations known in online forums only to be discovered by his wife. All the cases debated beg many questions to be answered, and it is this aspect that I enjoy the most. Having listened to the podcast with my partner, it has provoked some further interesting ethical conversations and perspectives to be shared.

Important issues around bias are raised throughout the series, which is not a bad thing given the continuing battles against racism and misogyny that remain in society today. The overarching question addresses the age-old problem of fundamental attribution error – ‘Do people do bad things because they are bad people?’. This series is not supposed to be a serious psychological review of historical crimes and why they were committed though it is an entertaining and light-hearted discussion of some relatively dark topics. While some of the content can be gruesome and macabre, each episode ends on a high note with Hagen’s comedic side shining through. Overall, I have enjoyed listening to Bad People. It is a welcome distraction from the endless homeworking many of us find ourselves in, and I can almost hear Shaw’s eyeroll as Hagen tries to convince her against the evidence.

Reviewed by Joh Foster, an independent organisational psychologist and change specialist
Twitter: @TheWiseFoster

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