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Revenge is bittersweet at best

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Tim Vernimmen interviews Michele Gelfand in Knowable Magazine:

Psychologist Michele Gelfand has long been curious about conflicts and how we might negotiate our way out of them. She’s especially intrigued by the psychological desire to retaliate — and the fact that this urge is so often contagious.

People not involved in the original conflict may sometimes feel like taking revenge for the harm done to others in their group. They might even take it out on relatives of the perpetrator or others perceived as belonging to the same group, even if those people hold no responsibility whatsoever.

Gelfand, now at the University of Maryland, tackles the topic with a range of research tools, from brain imaging in the lab to fieldwork in the Middle East. In an article in the 2019 Annual Review of Psychology, she and her colleagues explain what revenge research has taught us so far. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

This is a fascinating subject, yet it seems difficult to study. How do you go about it? Do you seek out people who already feel like taking revenge, or do you get them to feel that way?

As a social scientist, I’ve always been a proponent of having multiple methods to study anything, as every method has its strengths and limitations. You can manipulate contexts where people in the laboratory feel like they have been intentionally harmed. You can also conduct surveys to ask people about times they’ve felt they’ve been harmed in the past, and study their reactions and their emotions in those contexts.

And in some recent work that we’ve published on honor cultures — where there is a willingness to retaliate against people to defend one’s reputation even if doing so is very risky or costly — we have even used computational models, to try and simulate the circumstances under which revenge might turn out to be beneficial. These simulations suggest that unreliable institutions and a generally tough environment may be crucial conditions for the evolution of honor cultures.

In your review, you write that “revenge has not received much attention in the history of intellectual thought.” Why do you think this subject has been largely ignored for so long?

It’s interesting, because revenge — which we define as motivated retaliation after one perceives harm to one’s well-being — is a universal phenomenon. It is very common, and it takes a serious toll. In the US, for example, desire for revenge has been implicated in over 60 percent of school shootings and over a quarter of bombings.

It may be that early philosophers were more focused on virtue, considering revenge to be a very negative phenomenon. Only recently have researchers started to theorize that the urge to retaliate might reflect something really fundamental about human psychology, with both positive and negative aspects.

When revenge is studied, it is often treated as something to be avoided or prevented. Yet you and your coauthors stress that “vengeance can be functional and even necessary.” Really?

Yes, and there are a number of different reasons for that. From an individual perspective, revenge has long been thought to be a deterrent, a way to signal to others that one is strong and not to be messed with.

More recently, the focus has shifted to cultural processes, suggesting that revenge also reflects how groups operate, and helps people work together at times when cooperation is essential for group survival. By discouraging the violation of social norms, revenge may help to keep the group together.

If revenge can be useful, would you go as far as recommending it in certain situations? . . .

Continue reading.

See also Revenge: A Multilevel Review and Synthesis in Annual Review of Psychology.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 November 2019 at 12:15 pm

Posted in Daily life, Science

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