Psychology of Revenge

The New York Times has an article on how hard it for people to strike back at an offence in a appropriate way. By my reading it says that people are not perfectly empathic. People underestimate the pain they inflict compared to the pain the receive. I do not think this would be surprising to anyone, but most people do walk through life believing that when they retaliate they do so in an appropriate and justified way.

The results were striking. Although volunteers tried to respond to each other’s touches with equal force, they typically responded with about 40 percent more force than they had just experienced. Each time a volunteer was touched, he touched back harder, which led the other volunteer to touch back even harder. What began as a game of soft touches quickly became a game of moderate pokes and then hard prods, even though both volunteers were doing their level best to respond in kind.

Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.

Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.

Clearly these cycles need to be short circuited before serious harm is done. This dynamic seems to apply all the way from sibling spats to international relations.

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4 Responses to “Psychology of Revenge”

  1. Interesting piece that I missed somehow. I wonder how we can short circuit these spats when it’s clear that we all are so poorly calibrated between what we give and what we receive. Awareness of this is the first step, at least.

    Now if only we could work on that disconnect between our own impact on the world and everyone else’s that is heading in the direction of the tragedy of the commons on climate change. The Onion got it right a few years back when it had the headline that 98% of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation for Others. Everyone wants the world to be better, but nobody wants to give up convenience. (And hey, I live in one of the easiest places in the world to get around in public transit, and taking the bus is still a pain in the neck!)

    Getting over ourselves is the hardest part.

  2. Great article. Of course we are ‘wired into’ our own pain feelings and wireless with regard to the pain of others. We strike out to inflict more pain in a vicious cycle. Wars thus progress…

  3. Hi,

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  4. Korina Isabelle R. Danao Says:

    I find this interesting. Can you send me further studies and concrete ideas and experimentations? I would’ve liked to read something more broad and defined.

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