The Complicated Psychology of Revenge

The Complicated Psychology of Revenge (by Eric Jaffe, Observer, October 2011)

A few years ago a group of Swiss researchers scanned the brains of people who had been wronged during an economic exchange game. These people had trusted their partners to split a pot of money with them, only to find that the partners had chosen to keep the loot for themselves. The researchers then gave the people a chance to punish their greedy partners, and for a full minute, as the victims contemplated revenge, the activity in their brains was recorded. The decision caused a rush of neural activity in the caudate nucleus, an area of the brain known to process rewards (in previous work, the caudate has delighted in cocaine and nicotine use). The findings, published in a 2004 issue of Science, gave physiological confirmation to what the scorned have been saying for years: Revenge is sweet.

A thirst for vengeance is nothing if not timeless. It is as classic as Homer and Hamlet, and as contemporary as Don Corleone and Quentin Tarantino; as old as the eyes and teeth traded in the Bible, and as fresh as the raid that took the life of Osama bin Laden. But while the idea of revenge is no doubt delectable — the very phrase “just desserts” promises a treat — much of its sugar is confined to the coating. The actual execution of revenge carries a bitter cost of time, emotional and physical energy, and even lives. That minute before revenge is savory, as the authors of the Science study recognized; but what about the days and weeks that follow?

In the past few years, psychological scientists have discovered many ways in which the practice of revenge fails to fulfill its sweet expectations. Behavioral scientists have observed that instead of quenching hostility, revenge can prolong the unpleasantness of the original offense and that merely bringing harm upon an offender is not enough to satisfy a person’s vengeful spirit. They have also found that instead of delivering justice, revenge often creates only a cycle of retaliation, in part because one person’s moral equilibrium rarely aligns with another’s. The upshot of these insights is a better sense of why the pursuit of revenge has persisted through the ages, despite tasting a lot more sour than advertised.

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