Effortless Thinking: It Pays to Resist Revenge’s Sweet Taste

The title of this post is identical to the title of an article by Graham Lawton in the series of articles in the 16 December 2017 Issue of the New Scientist titled “EFFORTLESS THINKING: Why some ideas come naturally to us—and why they’re usually wrong.”

According to popular wisdom, revenge is a dish best served cold. When we get a hunger for it, we feel satisfied once we’ve had our fill.

We could see why if we take a good look at what’s going on in our brain. According to criminologist Manuel Eisner of the University of Cambridge, brain scanning reveals the neural pathways of the revenge process. An initial humiliation fires up the brain’s emotional centers, the amygdalae and hypothalamus. They inform the anterior insular cortex, which evaluates whether we have been treated unfairly. If it has, the prefrontal cortex steps in to plan and execute retaliation. Finally, the brain’s pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens, swings into action to judge whether the revenge is satisfactory.

Revenge appears to be a universal human trait and the list of wrongs that need to be avenged are common across societies. It includes homicide, physical injury, theft, sexual aggression, adultery and repetitional damage to oneself, loved ones, or members of one’s tribe.

Unfortunately, it is easy to get revenge wrong. Too little and you reveal that you are worth exploiting. Too much and you risk starting a tit-for-tat cycle of revenge. Since we often make such misjudgments, it is likely why we have evolved an instinct for forgiveness too. Evolutionary psychologists see this as part of the same cognitive tool, to minimize any fallout from revenge. Once it is enacted mutual forgiveness follows, and the relationship is reset, for the time being at least.

See the healthy memory blog post, “Revenge, Sweet, but Not Heathy” for some helpful ideas on patching up relationships.

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