[Paleopsych] NYT: Payback Time: Why Revenge Tastes So Sweet

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Tue Jul 27 17:48:11 UTC 2004

Payback Time: Why Revenge Tastes So Sweet
NYT July 27, 2004

[Not very relevant to me: vengeance is 13th among my ranking of Reiss' 16 
Basic Desires.]

A raised eyebrow was all it took.

She waited until a year after the breakup, until after he
had proposed to the other woman - a model, did he mention
that? - and the new couple had begun planning the wedding.
That's when she ran into a mutual friend who had spent a
few days staying with her ex.

"And you were, uh, comfortable staying there?" she said to
the friend.

What are you talking about? he said.

And then the eyebrow arched, and voilà, suspicions about
her former boyfriend's sexual orientation were loosed.

"Yes, I'm a Scorpio, so I'm un peu vindictive," said the
woman, who swore certain payback if her name appeared in
this newspaper.

Vindictive, perhaps, but also fundamentally protective.
Revenge may be frowned upon, viewed as morally destitute,
papered over with platitudes about living well. But the
urge to extract a pound of flesh, researchers find, is
primed in the genes.

Acts of personal vengeance reflect a biologically rooted
sense of justice, they say, that functions in the brain
something like appetite. Alternately voracious and
manageable, it can inspire socially beneficial acts of
retaliation and punishment as well as damaging ones. The
emerging picture helps explain why many people who think
they are above taking revenge find themselves doing nasty,
despicable things, and how unconscious biases pervert what
is at bottom a socially functional instinct.

"The best way to understand revenge is not as some disease
or moral failing or crime but as a deeply human and
sometimes very functional behavior," said Dr. Michael
McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami.
"Revenge can be a very good deterrent to bad behavior, and
bring feelings of completeness and fulfillment."

Retaliatory acts, anthropologists have long argued, help
keep people in line where formal laws or enforcement do not
exist. Before Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger,
there was Alexander Hamilton, whose fatal duel with Aaron
Burr was commemorated this month on the banks of the Hudson
River. Recent research has shown that stable communities
depend on people who have "an intrinsic taste for punishing
others who violate a community's norms," said Dr. Joseph
Henrich, an anthropologist at Emory University in Atlanta.

In one experimental investing game involving four players,
for example, people pay to punish others who contribute
meager amounts to the shared investment pool. In another, a
one-on-one exercise in sharing a sum of money, people often
reject any offer from a partner that is not split 50-50 or
close to it, denying both players a payoff. The
participants are typically strangers who will not see each
other again, Dr. Henrich said, so they are not penalizing
others to develop an equitable relationship in the future.
They are retaliating to enforce the rules that hold the
game - and, theoretically, the community - together.

Using brain-wave technology, Dr. Eddie Harmon-Jones, a
neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, has found
that when people are insulted, they show a burst of
activity in the left prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain
that is also active when people prepare to satisfy hunger
and some cravings. This increased activity, Dr.
Harmon-Jones said, seems to reflect not the sensation of
being angry so much as the preparation to express it, the
readiness to hit back.

The expression itself is all pleasure. In one recent
experiment, psychologists demonstrated that students who
were ridiculed were far less likely to avenge themselves on
an offensive peer if they had been given a bogus
"mood-freezing pill," which they were told blocked the
experience of pleasure.

"We've shown many times that expressing anger often
escalates and leads to more aggression," said Dr. Brad
Bushman, a psychologist at the University of Michigan who
conducted the study, "but people express it for the same
reason they eat chocolate."

Savoring the taste can be satisfying enough. When Kurt
Raedle, 40, a salesman in Kansas City, Mo., had a new
leather jacket stolen from a party, he fantasized about
getting his hands on the thief. A month later, a friend
spotted the rascal wearing the jacket at a bar and helped
Mr. Raedle track him down. Mr. Raedle said he telephoned
him. "He was guilty, and he wanted to mail the jacket to
me, but I said no. I wanted him to return it, in person, to
my parents' house. I wanted him to face the parents of
someone he'd stolen from."

The penalty: a half-hour discourse on morals and life
lessons from Mr. Raedle's father, all 6 feet 4 inches and
250 pounds of him.

This kind of payback is closer to what sociologists and
philosophers call just-deserts retribution. Dr. John M.
Darley, a professor of psychology and public affairs at
Princeton University, said such actions involve a
deliberate effort to tailor the retribution to the crime,
often taking into consideration as many relevant details
about the offender and the offense as possible.

In some cases it may be possible for people to assuage
their feelings of outrage by publicly protesting the
injustice. In one 2003 study, Dr. Harmon-Jones tracked the
brain-wave patterns in students who had just been told the
university was considering big tuition increases. They all
got angry, he said, but signing a petition to block the
increases seemed to give many some satisfaction.

Yet the nature of appetite-like urges, scientists say, is
to err on the side of excess. Although soup and salad might
suffice, hungry people dream of the dinner buffet.
Likewise, those who feel wronged very often overdo it,
engaging in extravagant, almost sensual fantasies of
payback - of wrecking a household, snuffing a career,
dancing on a grave.

"Think of the urge as kind of hunger, a lust, a deficit the
brain is seeking to fill," Dr. McCullough said, "and you
can see why revenge fantasies can be so delicious."

When people are committed to a relationship, studies
suggest, they usually content themselves with a perfunctory
quid pro quo for the day's small abuses: He's not helping
with the party, let him find his own food. She's burning
money on the cell phone, time to misplace it.

People are exquisitely sensitive, if not always conscious,
of this subtle give and take and usually manage it without
lashing out. But wisecracks or other offenses that
challenge people's most cherished beliefs about themselves
- their discretion, their generosity, their toughness,
their intelligence - can prompt a craving for payback that
goes much deeper.

"You're talking about small events in everyday life that
can look insignificant until they touch some old conflict,
some longstanding betrayal or shame the person carries,"
said Dr. Irwin Rosen, a psychoanalyst in Topeka, Kan., who
studies the role of revenge in pathology.

Dismayed and ashamed at their own vulnerability, some
people exact the revenge on themselves, Dr. Rosen said.
What looks like self-defeating behavior or even masochism
is fueled by a deep desire to hurt someone close. One of
his former patients, a 32-year-old doctor, was drinking
herself out of a career and had left a trail of
ex-husbands, he said - partly, it came out in therapy, to
get revenge on a brilliant father who had insisted on
flawless devotion from his children.

Most vengeful acts are covert, researchers say, traveling
in whispers and unforwarded phone calls, in knowing glances
and nasty rumors.

Few people want to look vindictive.

"The ideal," said Dr. Robert Baron, a psychologist in the
school of management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in
Troy, N.Y., who has studied workplace reprisals, "is to
ruin the other person without him knowing what happened,
without him knowing if anything happened."

Dr. Baron estimates that the ratio of indirect to direct
acts of revenge is at least 100 to 1. As protective as this
indirection is, however, it gives people a false sense of
control. A person who feels deeply offended may respond
with a half-payback - missing an appointment, lapsing into
grim silence for a short period. This common ploy, Dr.
Rosen said, allows people to feel they have retained the
moral high ground. Consciously or not, they are giving
themselves wiggle room to exact more payback, if they wish,
because they have not delivered the full measure.

"The whole time you're saying to yourself, 'At least I
haven't sunk to their level,' " Dr. Rosen said.

The problem, psychologists say, is that one man's
restrained response is another's body blow. While acts of
vengeance may be carefully measured, their impact is
ultimately unpredictable, and they may invite the kind of
backlash that turns a small grudge into a lawsuit. Many
people Dr. Baron interviewed had waited for years to get
even with others who had themselves probably forgotten the
offense, plotting until they got an opportunity to "torpedo
their enemy's career," he said. During the interviews, some
even rubbed their hands together at the memory, like
cartoon villains.

Chuck Moore, 52, a retired salesman living in Loveland,
Ohio , said his mother had canceled his father's funeral at
the last minute because she did not want anything good said
about the man. "People came. The church was closed. Motto:
watch out, the last word is by the living," Mr. Moore said
in an e-mail message.

Researchers have found a number of ways people can
peaceably satiate their hunger for revenge: Work to feel
empathy for the other person. Savor what advantages you do
have. Pledge to behave even if the urge for vengeance
lingers - to behave, if not to forgive. Think for a while
about the nasty things you have done.

But there is another option, said John Sawyer, 44, a Denver
businessman who lived daily with an urge to exact revenge
after being shot one February night in 1987 during a
botched robbery attempt.

It took Mr. Sawyer six months to recover physically from
the gunshot wound, and about a year before he stopped being
angry at the three men who hurt him.

"I felt that forgiving them was its own kind of revenge,"
he said. "It showed they hadn't defeated me; it was like I
had risen above what happened, and above them."


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