Life at № 42
“Why all the celebration after the killing of Osama bin Laden? A psychologist who studies evolution and human behavior explains the complex desire for vengeance”
This was from a few years ago, but I think it’s a fascinating topic; particularly how Michael McCullough (author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct) lays it out in the interview:
Q: What evolutionary purpose does the impulse for revenge serve?
A: It’s got costs, but it does look like, from the best models we have, that individuals with a taste for punishing those who have harmed them could become a major part of a group. The way revenge seems to operate in our minds today really does have a functional ring to it.
The loudest way to exact revenge is to make a person’s gains less profitable. You have reached into their accounting system and changed what they’ve gained from harming you.
The interesting thing is that the desire for revenge goes up if there are people who have watched you be mistreated, because in that case, the costs have gotten bigger. If you don’t take revenge, there’s a chance that people will learn that you are the type of person who will put up with mistreatment. That is the kind of phenomenon that you would expect if there is a functional logic underlying the system that produces revenge. This is a well-tuned system that’s highly specific in what it cares about and the kinds of responses that it generates.”
Fascinating, isn’t it? I have the impression many people think our reactions are event specific, meaning to do with particular interactions; Of course, this isn’t the case at all. Our behaviours have functions in a much grander sense. The revenge angle is an interesting example because it’s both easily observable and readily available. Consider the chain of events that starts WWI, or the current US vs. North Korea dynamics. Or the Code of Hammurabi, or the concept of restitution in various socio-cultural systems. Or male “honour” in gangs or the mafia.