Throughout history, we’ve had an insatiable fascination with stories of vengeance. From the earliest Greek tragedies, to the Bible, to Shakespeare, to recent movies like Atonement, There Will Be Blood, and Sweeney Todd, revenge fuels the stories that people find important, memorable, and entertaining.
But you don’t have to crack open a novel or sit down to a movie to get an eyeful of revenge. The desire for revenge is the most powerful cause of violence that has been identified by social psychologists. About one in five violent assaults and murders is motivated by vengeance. Anthropologists tell us that the desire for revenge was one of the earliest motives for war. Today, terrorists recruit human bombs by taking advantage of that desire for revenge. Seeking revenge, people even conscript children.
Vengeance, then, is a very real problem — for individuals, for societies, and for the future of our little planet. The stakes are high; we should be doing all we can to understand the meaning and motivation of revenge — and what we might do to control it. I believe that part of our problem is that we view revenge through the wrong lens. Our distorted view makes the problem even more difficult to solve.
Society’s main metaphor for revenge is disease. By default, we tend to think of revenge as a sickness that invades a vulnerable host (perhaps one whose resistance to the infection has been weakened by a poor psychological constitution or a bad childhood), consumes the host (morally, physically, and psychologically), and then wreaks destructive effects on the avenger and the objects of his or her vengeance. Sometimes this disease spreads from one avenger-host to another until the outbreak reaches epidemic proportions. When you hear reporters describe “outbreaks of violence” that are fueled by the lust for vengeance, that’s the disease metaphor at work.
This disease model of revenge received modern psychology’s seal of approval in 1948, when an influential psychoanalyst named Karen Horney described how the desire for revenge could absorb people for a moment in time — or for life, becoming, effectively, a chronic illness: “This drive can be the governing passion of a life — time to which everything is subordinated, including self-interest. All intelligence, all energies, then, are dedicated to the one goal of vindictive triumph.” Horney went on to argue that people prevented from exercising their vengeful impulses may exhibit symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, and insomnia. In short, the desire for revenge produces such a powerful psychological toxin that it literally makes you sick.
This notion that vindictiveness is a sign that something has gone awry in the sufferer, or perhaps is even a cause of mental illness, is now so well established that we rarely think about it. For example, a recent scholarly paper about the “psychiatric problems” of people whose loved ones had been murdered described “obsessive revenge seeking” as one of the common “symptoms” that people experience after the murder of a loved one. Not only has the person lost someone dear, he or she has contracted a mental illness.
OUR IMPERFECT CURE
If vengeance is a disease, then the cure must certainly be forgiveness. Right? One psychiatrist recently endorsed a colleague’s work on forgiveness by saying that it “may be as important to the treatment of emotional and mental disorders as the discovery of sulfa drugs and penicillin were to the treatment of infectious diseases.” Another recent book title dubs forgiveness “the greatest healer of all.” Walk into any bookstore with a decent self-help section, and you’ll find shelves sagging under the weight of instruction books that will show you how to forgive your grudges in a few steps. If the books don’t help, you can now find a therapist trained in “forgiveness therapy.”
Make no mistake — more than a dozen scientific studies show that therapeutic approaches to forgiveness really do help people, and that’s good. But my problem with “disease” and “cure” metaphors for understanding revenge and forgiveness is that they cause us to overlook some golden opportunities to make the world a less vengeful, more forgiving place on a much larger scale than self-help books and psychotherapy could ever achieve.
DEEP ROOTS OF REVENGE
Evolutionary science has produced a very different understanding of both revenge and forgiveness. The desire for revenge is not a disease; instead, it is a universal trait of human nature that was crafted by natural selection because of the critical problems it solved as our species was evolving. Indeed, research from many corners of the scientific world has recently converged upon the three functions that revenge likely served during human evolution:
1. The threat of revenge was effective in deterring our ancestors’ rivals from harming them.
2. Revenge helped to dissuade those individuals who were stupid or gutsy enough to actually harm our ancestors from doing so a second time.
3. Revenge was useful for punishing (and reforming) “free riders,” people who enjoy the benefits of a group’s efforts without contributing to those efforts. Our ancestors had to make sure that when free riders failed to contribute to the common good, they suffered consequences.
The desire for revenge after being mistreated has been identified in virtually every human society that anthropologists have studied. What’s more, chimpanzees, monkeys, birds, and even a couple of species of fish have been shown to use revenge to solve problems related to aggression and cooperation. And rather than residing in some dark part of the brains of psychopaths, neuroscientists have discovered that the desire for revenge activates the same parts of our brains that are activated when we’re pursuing goals we really care about, or when we’re enthusiastically sitting down to enjoy a good meal. Feeling vengeful when you’ve been wronged isn’t evidence that you’re mentally ill or morally defective. Modern evolutionary science says it’s proof that you’re human.
THE FORGIVENESS INSTINCT
Evolutionary science has produced a new understanding of forgiveness, too: forgiveness not as “cure” but as instinct — a built-in feature of human nature that has evolved because of its effectiveness in helping our evolutionary ancestors salvage valuable relationships, following the betrayals and rifts that inevitably arise in friendships and family relations. Theoretical biologists have come to the surprising conclusion that without the ability to forgive spats like these, social organisms just can’t maintain cooperative relationships. No forgiveness, no cooperation. And without our prodigious abilities to establish cooperative relationships with each other, we wouldn’t be “us.”
Theory aside, there’s also quite a bit of hard evidence for the notion that forgiveness is instinctual: In the last three decades, animal researchers have found about 30 different species of group-living mammals that patch up their valuable relationships after conflict by using physical gestures scientists call “reconciliation.” These gestures bear an uncanny resemblance to the hugs, backslaps, handshakes, and other physical rituals that people around the world also use to forgive and ask for forgiveness. Also, in a recent research project, I scoured the available anthropological materials for a random sample of 60 world societies. I found that in 56 of those societies, or 93 percent, anthropologists had documented the existence of the concepts of forgiveness or reconciliation, or both. For behaviors as subtle and often quiet as forgiveness and reconciliation often are, a .930 batting average comes tantalizingly close to making forgiveness look as intrinsic to humans’ moral sensibilities as the desire for revenge is.
Evolutionary thinking about revenge and forgiveness encourages us to substitute our metaphors of disease and cure for the language of adaptation and instinct. But so what? What can this change of metaphors really buy us? Maybe quite a lot. Rather than thinking of forgiveness as a cure for revenge that people have to learn to use through self-help books, educational interventions, or therapy, thinking of revenge and forgiveness as instincts can help us see that our hunger for vengeance and our desire to forgive are both turned on and off by real social conditions. This implies that if we want more forgiveness in the world, what we really ought to do is figure out how to make the world more plentiful in the characteristics that promote forgiveness and less plentiful in the characteristics that promote revenge.
We already know a lot about what those characteristics are. When people live in places where crime and disorder are high, where policing is poor, where governments are weak, and where life is dangerous, they’ll tend to use revenge as a problem-solving strategy, because its ability to punish aggressors, deter would-be aggressors, and discourage cheaters made it adaptive in our ancestral environment. Likewise, we’ll see higher rates of forgiveness under conditions that made forgiveness adaptive in our ancestral environments. This means we’ll see more forgiveness in places where people are highly dependent on complex networks of cooperative relationships, where policing is reliable, where the systems of justice are fair and trustworthy, and where social institutions are up to the task of helping offenders depict themselves as valuable and nonthreatening to the people whom they’ve harmed. If you understand how to influence your household, your place of business, your neighborhood, or your government to create changes like these, then you’re in a position to make the world a more forgiving place, and you don’t need to recommend any self-help books to anyone or put any psychotherapists on retainer.
CHOOSE YOUR PROJECT FOR INTERNATIONAL FORGIVENESS DAY
On International Forgiveness Day (Sunday, August 3) you can help make the world a less vengeful, more forgiving place by choosing one of the projects below to implement in your community, congregation, or household:
1. Identify three resources within the history, scriptures, or rituals of your religious tradition that can be used to promote forgiveness, and three that can be used to promote revenge. Then, create an opportunity for people in your religious congregation to discuss these insights and what they ought to do with them.
2. Organize a regular social event or community-service activity between your religious congregation and a local congregation from another faith (preferably one with whom your group has shared a history of misunderstanding, mistrust, or resentment). Friendship and cooperation are two of the most reliable resources at our disposal for making the world a less vengeful, more forgiving place.
3. Ensure that your workplace and the community organizations in which you are involved have fair, open, and efficient policies for addressing grievances and punishing people who violate the rules. When people feel that they have been wronged or that someone has broken important rules of their groups, they feel vengeful in response. When justice is swiftly and fairly applied to rule-breakers, however, the desire for revenge dissipates, and people find it easier to forgive. On the other hand, when people feel that serious infractions have gone unpunished, they’ll be tempted to take up the cause of justice by pursuing revenge on their own. A passion for fairness and justice is at the heart of leadership and good management.
4. Promote a climate of apology and compensation in your family, neighborhood, congregation, or place of work. Sincere apologies, displays of genuine remorse, and offers of compensation are the most reliable mechanisms at human beings’ disposal for encouraging forgiveness. Parents have always taught their children to apologize; today, public officials and governments are discovering the power of apology, too. Australians have even begun to celebrate an unofficial “National Sorry Day” each year to acknowledge centuries of mistreatment of Australia’s aboriginal peoples. Apologies and offers of compensation have helped to infuse forgiveness into some of the world’s most severe and long-standing conflicts.
5. Work with your local law enforcement agency to start a restorative justice program in your community. Restorative justice programs create opportunities for contrite offenders and willing victims to meet face-to-face in order to facilitate apologies, to arrive at a better understanding of why the crime occurred, and to develop meaningful plans for reparations and integrating the offender back into the community. These victim/offender conferences decrease victims’ desires for revenge, promote forgiveness, and make victims less angry and fearful of their offenders.
6. Design some creative ways to encourage better relations between the people in your community and the police. People find it easier to forgive the harms they have suffered when they trust that there is a system of law and order that will defend their interests when things get out of hand. Developing a pattern of courteous and respectful contact between your neighbors and your local police when times are good can provide a strong foundation when people need the police to help them after they’ve been victimized. This, in turn, can help to drive down revenge-motivated violence.
7. Encourage the people in your community to read a great work of fiction or to watch a foreign film about a group of people for whom animosity is high. Novels allow us to see the world through the eyes of others and empathize with the human traits we share. When we feel empathy for a group with whom we’ve been locked in conflict, it’s easier to surrender our desire for revenge, and it’s easier to forgive.