Aggression occurs not only in humans, but in most other species. In fact, according to Professor of Psychology David Barash and Psychiatrist Judith Lipton, there is a neurobiological hardware promoting redirected aggression, as well as evolutionary underpinnings. In their book, Payback: Why We Retaliate, Redirect Aggression, and Take Revenge, Barash and Lipton explain that, although payback is instinctual, we are capable of rising above it and managing our responses. I have the pleasure of interviewing the authors here on Psych Central.
1. Could you explain why we are hardwired for aggression and revenge? The neurobiological and evolutionary underpinnings are fascinating to me, and help me understand some of my impulses.
Unfortunately, to some extent we are in fact hardwired for revenge. But being “hardwired” in this case simply means that we are inclined to behave in a certain manner, not that we are obliged to do so, or that we have no choice in the matter. More generally, the point of our book Payback is that pain and violence are connected in ways that many people don’t realize. Thus, everyone knows that violence causes pain; less well known but equally important is that it works the other way, too: pain causes violence. When living things (including people) are injured, they are strongly inclined to pass their pain along to others. We call it the Three Rs: retaliation, revenge and redirected aggression.
Retaliation involves immediate payback; revenge is delayed and often exaggerated. Especially intriguing — and troublesome — is redirected aggression, in which A hurts B who “responds” by hurting C. Redirected aggression is a bit like the old Three Stooges routine in which Moe hits Larry who turns around and wallops Curly! It would even be funny, except that its effects are frequently so serious, sometimes even tragic.
For example, people who have a bad day at work are liable to take offense quickly and dangerously on their drive home (road rage, anyone?), after which they might ill-treat their spouse, yell at their child, or kick the cat. The well-known phenomenon of “cycles of domestic abuse” may have its origin here, in which abused children are vulnerable to becoming abusive adults. Ditto for scapegoating, in which victims often band together and “take out” their pain on innocent victims … after which everyone feels somewhat better. We suspect that redirected aggression was involved, to some extent, in the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
Thus, in the aftermath of 9/11, Americans felt — and were — deeply injured, resulting in a public mood that lent itself to a violent response to someone. Anyone. This is definitely not to justify the US invasion of Iraq, which was doubtless motivated by many other factors. But insight into the Three Rs suggests that the Bush Administration was psychologically adroit (at least at the time) in tapping into the public demand for passing along its pain – which in this case was closest to redirected aggression.
We are beginning to understand the biological underpinnings of the Three Rs. At a physiological level, individuals who have been injured or otherwise victimized experience “subordination stress,” in which their cortisone levels go up, sex hormones go down, blood pressure goes up, and ulcers may develop over time. Significantly, when such victims respond to their pain by passing it along to someone else (whether via retaliation, revenge or redirected aggression), their subordination stress is significantly lessened! Hence, by responding to their own pain by inflicting pain on someone else (whether or not the “someone else” was the original perpetrator) victims are reducing their own distress by increasing that of another.
This leads to another question: What is the evolutionary, adaptive significance of such a strange response? The answer appears to be that among any social species (including human beings), individuals are exquisitely sensitive to what is going on among members of the social group: Who is doing what to whom? Who is up and who is down? When someone has been attacked and hurt, he or she hasn’t only lost a fight and perhaps something being fought over (food, mates, etc.) but also runs the risk of being seen as a wimp. Some of David’s own research shows, for example, that when animals have been attacked and don’t respond by attacking someone else in turn, they are more likely to be attacked yet again by other members of the group.
Let’s be clear: The fact that retaliation, revenge and redirected aggression can now be understood in biological terms does not in any way justify any of the Three Rs! In fact, we are convinced that the tendency to pass along one’s pain – although natural – is ethically reprehensible, and indeed, that human beings have a responsibility to rise above such “natural” inclinations. In order to do so, we believe that it will be very helpful to understand where these tendencies come from, because only then will be empowered to overcome them.
2. What does “justice” really mean?
Of course, philosophers since Plato have struggled with this concept. Our point is that in many cases, “justice” is really an effort to put a socially acceptable gloss on the human yearning to respond to pain by inflicting yet more pain on someone else – ideally, it is the perpetrator who is “brought to justice,” but we fear that in all too many cases, the key consideration is that someone be punished … anyone, because it is largely by seeing pain inflicted on someone else that the victims of pain find themselves healed. Or rather, it’s how they seek to be healed. Often, the “satisfaction” of passing along one’s pain is much less than had been expected, and the ultimate effect is simply to generate yet more pain. In our book, we devote an entire chapter to the fascinating question of justice and how it can be distinguished from retribution – and we conclude that the difference is remarkably and troublesomely small.
3. Can you offer a few ways we can manage our responses?
The last chapter of our book is entirely concerned with making various suggestions as to how people could overcome this very widespread tendency to pass their pain along to others; that is, to engage in the Three Rs. Simple answers include “taking it out” on substitute objects such as a punching bag, or going for a run. More complex ones involve engaging our higher ethical sensibilities. Indeed, we point out that the world’s great ethical and religious systems have long struggled with this very difficult and important question. It is central to Buddhism, and to Christianity as well, just as understanding the underlying biology of pain-passing helps us all to understand why it is so terribly difficult to turn the other cheek.
We conclude our book with what we propose as an 11th Commandment: Whenever you find yourself contemplating a course of action, ask yourself whether it will increase or decrease the world’s burden of pain and always choose that which decreases it.