A Dangerous Addiction

“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

- Confucius

Today, I want to ask an important scientific question: how the hell does Jonah Lehrer write such insightful articles so quickly?

"Count on rev...?" Ohhhh, I get it now.

Osama bin Laden was killed Sunday night (Monday morning in Pakistan’s time zone), and by 10:30 this morning, Lehrer had posted an article on the neuropsychology of revenge. He asks a question that’s fascinated me for years: if revenge is such an unhealthy motivator, why is it hardwired into our dopaminergic pathways? As Lehrer puts it:

According to the data, when men (but not women) watched a defector get punished, they showed additional activation in reward related areas of the brain, such as the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens. These are essential elements of the dopamine reward pathway, that same highway of nerves that also gets titillated by sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

So (for men at least), vengeance is an intensely emotional proposition – and a potentially addictive one.

Over the centuries, a lot of ink has been spilled on this concept of tempering the revenge instinct. Take, for instance, the familiar line, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” that “old Klingon proverb” quoted at the beginning of the movie Pulp Fiction. Actually, the quote dates back at least as far as the 1841 novel Mathilde, which (along with several other books of the period) references it as an old southern French proverb. Yet interestingly, the novel Don Quixote(1621) includes the saying, “Revenge is not easily taken in cold blood.” In other words, it’s hard to stay calm when a personal vendetta is on the line.

Revenge could be described is a sort of emotional “junk food” – most of us have craved it at one time or another, and it can sometimes provide a few moments of delicious bliss; but in the long term , it isn’t very satisfying or healthy. One might even say it’s a waste of personal resources. And yet, the thirst for revenge is apparently a trait that we’ve inherited from our pre-human ancestors (well, men have, anyway), which implies that this drive must’ve conferred some advantage(s) on males at some point in our evolutionary history.

As the centuries passed, though, many human societies outlawed personal duels (though men still engaged in them), and personal vigilantism was replaced by the concept of the legal trial. What’s intriguing to me is the fact that societies throughout history take action to restrain the instinct for personal vengeance, while enforcing, at the judicial level, an ideal of justice not too different from the old lex talionis: “an eye for an eye.” The difference (ideally) is that whereas the former is personal and emotional, the latter is based on a decision reached by a group of unbiased and clear-headed individuals.

At least, I hope that’s whats going on.

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One Response to “A Dangerous Addiction”

  1. Skaði says:

    Revenge only causes more bloodshed. This has been known throughout history. See the reaction of Levi and Simeon to the rape of Dinah; and then note their father Jacob’s response.

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