Are we wired for both revenge and forgiveness?

February 28, 2012

Anger, Healing

People who have been harmed by another person are goaded into revenge by a brain system that tells them that revenge, when it comes, will make them feel good.

by Dr. Eileen Borris — 

“Fry those bastards! I want Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols hanged — no trials necessary.” These were the words of Bud Welch, whose 23-year-old daughter was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. “From the moment I learned it was a bomb, I survived on the thought of revenge.”

How many of us have been so angry at someone that all we could think about was getting back at them? It could have been an ugly divorce, a betrayal or someone causing us unimaginable pain. If you catch people when they are motivated to look at themselves realistically, they will often admit just how difficult forgiveness can be and just how easily the desire for revenge can surface. So why does seeking revenge feel so “sweet?”

One of the real surprises about the appeal of revenge can be found in neuroscience studies conducted during the last decade. Revenge does not come from a sick or demented part of the brain, but from the same area or brain system we utilize when we are hungry and looking for something to eat.

Your brain has a system for telling you whether something is good for you — a system that neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp has called the “seeking systems.” If your experience produces positive consequences, the seeking system will create enthusiasm and a feeling of anticipation when a new opportunity arises.

The opposite also is true. When someone harms you, the seeking system shuts down. Good feelings of anticipation are then replaced by anger or fear. You may think that anger leads us down the path of revenge but, as it turns out, revenge is not primarily a product of rage: the neuroscientists tell us it is actually a product of desire.

Because revenge is not fundamentally about stopping an attack in progress, the rage circuit is not so important for revenge. As Michael McCullough, a psychology professor at the University of Miami, talks about in his book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, people talk about “craving” revenge. This is not just a linguistic oddity. It is a signpost to a deeper understanding of revenge and its neural foundations.

When you have been injured by someone, the initial response is some form of anger, but after the anger begins to subside, the seeking system calls for a fundamental change in course. The seeking system motivates people to turn from a desire to escape pain or threat toward a search for pleasure. Recent studies show that the comparison of revenge to hunger was physiologically accurate.

Pursuing a revenge goal is exciting. It is no surprise that people report feeling satisfaction after they take revenge, because the seeking system has been activated. Just as a good meal creates pleasure for a hungry person, seeing your perpetrators suffer for what they have done also activates the brain’s reward pathways.

People who have been harmed by others are goaded into revenge by a brain system that tells them that revenge, when it comes, will make them feel good.

But if the neuropsychological foundation for revenge is the desire for pleasure, is there a neuropsychological foundation for forgiveness? According to McCullough, there is.

“Revenge and forgiveness are like two sides of the same coin,” says McCullough. “We know absolutely that revenge is this universal feature of human nature, but we also know now that there is a natural, evolved capacity to forgive that also exists in every human mind on the planet.”

There are three psychological conditions that activate the forgiveness instinct: (1) when there is care and concern for people we feel close to; (2) when the relationship has value; and (3) when people feel safe from harm. When any of these three conditions is activated, those brain-generated feelings are cues that prod forgiveness. The flip side is that when people do not feel safe, valuable or worthy of care, they will move toward the alternative, namely revenge.

When you look more closely at which conditions require forgiveness — violence, genocide, war — most of them occur involving people we do not know. They do not involve people we  care about, who are valuable to us or who make us feel safe. Instead, they are strangers, enemies or people we hate. The people we need to forgive the most are the people for whom the psychological building blocks do not exist.

Can we change this situation? Can we create social conditions that will help trigger the conditions for forgiveness in our brains, even when these conditions are in short supply? I think we can. What it will require is taking a long, hard look at the social behaviors which do, in fact, signal our care and concern for one another, the value we assign one another and the sense of safety we impart to others. If we can do that, not only will we develop more peaceful societies, but we will also experience a lot more forgiveness in our lives.


Eileen Borris, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice for 25 years specializing in marriage and relationship issues and in how to forgive and transform our lives., or 480-951-0544.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 28, Number 5, Oct/Nov 2009.

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