Michael McCullough talks to IC
Even the conventional wisdom admits that revenge tastes sweet — it’s that sickly aftertaste that gets you. Is it wrong to seek revenge? Michael McCullough, an internationally recognized expert on revenge and forgiveness, challenges our conventional notions about both.
In his most recent book, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, where he directs the Laboratory for Social and Clinical Psychology, argues that to get beyond revenge, we must first recognize what it really is. A revenge revisionist, McCullough postulates that understanding the real nature of this desire (and also the impetus to forgive) can make the world a less violent place.
IC: You argue that our society tends to view the desire for revenge as a disease — something that must be cured.
McCullough: Right. If you look at how people depict revenge in television shows, plays, and great works of literature, usually the idea is that the desire for revenge represents that something has gone wrong for humanity. It’s some curse or tragic flaw that we’re either stuck with because the gods are taunting us, or because of a childhood trauma, or because something went wrong in a character’s development that turned him or her into a sicko who has become obsessed with revenge. The idea running through these kinds of conceits is that the human desire for revenge is bad news. The famous psychiatrist Karen Horney [pronounced horn-eye] was the first in the field to really find purchase for this idea. The point she made in an essay that was read and cited by many professionals was that the desire for revenge can produce mental disorders. It grips you like alcoholism or any other addiction. If you let this out-of-control desire for revenge have its way with you, you end up having psychosomatic problems, and you may end up needing psychiatric help.
But you don’t view revenge in this way?
It just didn’t make sense to me to view revenge as something gone wrong in human nature. The desire for revenge is just too common for the disease metaphor to really be valid. When I stepped out of my own field of psychology and started reading more broadly — anthropology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology — what became really obvious to me first of all was that around the world and throughout history, humans have experienced this desire for revenge when they’re harmed. And, it’s not something that characterizes only humans; it characterizes a lot of other animal species, too. And finally the scales fell from my eyes when I recognized the functions revenge serves and the ways it helps people address some very important social challenges.
One of the key problems that revenge is really good at addressing is the problem of defending our interests when someone violates us. Imagine that somebody harms you, or one of your loved ones, or seriously damages your reputation, or takes your stuff. For most of us, the desire for revenge is reliably triggered by these kinds of harms — even if it’s just a fleeting thought. In such instances, what revenge is really effective at doing is deterring harm-doers from harming us a second time. It sends a message to other people around you who are witnessing this injustice that you aren’t the kind of pushover they might have thought you were, and therefore, that they ought not to mess with you in the future. So it sends an important deterrence message by basically convincing other people that if they take advantage of you, you’re likely to inflict a retaliatory cost on them in response.
If we look at this through the eyes of evolution, we try to figure out what kind of hazards or what kinds of obstacles our ancestors faced that would have systematically pushed them towards developing certain kinds of adaptations for solving these problems. Think about it this way: We have Bob and Jimmy. If Bob succeeds at solving the problem of other people wanting to take advantage of him by using revenge, whereas Jimmy solves it by being a pushover, Bob has a leg up in the evolutionary game. He will have offspring who have a better chance at reproductive success because they live to maturity. That is what evolution is all about — your success in getting your genes to the next generation.
Can you define forgiveness? In the book you write about an “anxiety” to forgive — what is that?
When people forgive, they switch from ill will for someone who has harmed them to good will for that person. It’s a really simple definition, but to me it says it all. This switch from ill will to good will can take time, but it can also be incredibly fast. When we get into a conflict with people we care about or who are valuable to us, the disconnection from these relationships causes anxiety. This anxiety around relational breaks doesn’t just apply to human beings. When there is a fight between two chimpanzees or two baboons, for example, they often behave in ways that indicate that they’re anxious. They scratch themselves, they yawn, and pace restlessly. If we were watching a human behave this way, we’d have no problem concluding, “Gosh, that person really looks nervous.” Their stress hormones go up. This anxiety is a kind of signal that prompts the individual to patch up the relationship because of its value. Relationships are critical to how we live, and anxiety motivates us to patch them up.
Here’s the question that got me started on Beyond Revenge: Why do we forgive? Sure, it’s good for your physical health, and it promotes psychological peace, and on those points alone it should be encouraged. But that’s not enough to explain why we have the ability to forgive in the first place. Why don’t we have X-ray vision? I’d love X-ray vision, and I think it would give me great enjoyment. But none of us have it, and we can’t, even though it might bring us satisfaction and enjoyment. X-ray vision is simply not in the instruction manual for building a human being.
But forgiveness is. Why is that? Because it affects our relationships; it helps us restore and maintain relationships that are valuable to us and because it prevents us from harming those who are our genetic kin even when they’ve harmed us. We have an almost automatic ability to forgive loved ones. People with children know this. The reason it’s so easy to forgive your children is that natural selection wasn’t kind to people who harmed their own children — even when their children’s behavior was despicable, or perhaps just really annoying. Evolution doesn’t reward those who cut off their noses to spite their faces. So the ability to forgive is really ingrained in human nature. This is really good news to me. It’s very exciting.
On the other hand, it’s much harder to forgive people who are distant from us because we haven’t thrown in our lots with them. If the relationship with someone who harmed you doesn’t seem to have the potential to provide long-term value, it’s tough to get excited about dropping your desire for retaliation and resuming positive relations. This is one of the real challenges for making the world a more forgiving place. The crucible for more forgiveness around the world is figuring out how to help people forgive people or groups of people they hate or mistrust.
What I discovered is that the key to making forgiveness easy in these situations is to make relationships more valuable. This is funny in a way because it turns things on their heads. We tend to think, “If I could forgive that person, I could start re-investing in our relationship.” But if we work on making people more interconnected and more invested in their relationships with each other, forgiveness will likely follow. For example, it’s likely that free trade would make the world a more forgiving place because we don’t like to attack or escalate conflict with partners we depend on for our livelihood. Again, that’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.
Your view of forgiveness is different from and less sublime than the religious concept, isn’t it?
You are absolutely right. I don’t want forgiveness to be a saintly virtue. I think it’s too important to our future as a species to make it inaccessible by canonizing it. What I wanted to explain in Beyond Revenge is how far we can go with a natural science of forgiveness. To what extent is the capacity to forgive just part of being Homo sapiens? Is forgiveness an endowment everyone can claim as a birthright? I think the answer to both of these questions is yes.
But in the book you write about both revenge and forgiveness in other species.
That’s right. In looking at the animal literature, I wanted to know how intelligent a species has to be to be able to engage in revenge and forgiveness. Do you have to have the brainpower to create modern cities, libraries, and Starbucks? I was fascinated to discover that the capacity for revenge is not limited to human beings. You can find fish, birds, and all kinds of primates that retaliate. With forgiveness, it’s pretty much the same: All kinds of group-living animals appear to have the ability to put their grievances aside in order to preserve relationships that are valuable to their fitness.
Here’s one example that really got my attention. Several fish biologists were interested in a particular problem of cooperation: A big fish comes along and wants to gobble up a group of guppies, for example. Guppies have developed a behavior that involves going out in pairs to inspect large predators to figure out how hungry they are. It turns out that the guppies obey a rule that looks very much like what game theorists call tit-for-tat: The first fish will swim forward and then wait for his partner. The second fish needs to leapfrog his partner and move closer to the predator. They inch forward like this until they get close enough to figure out if the predator is going to lunge at them. That will tell them that the predator is hungry. If you and I are these two guppies, and I don’t do my turn, you’ll swim off and punish me by leaving me in front of this possibly hungry predator all by myself. But as soon as I pull myself up by my fin-straps and start moving toward the predator, you’ll swim back over and we will resume the inspection. This is tit-for-tat because if I leave you in the lurch, you respond by leaving me in the lurch. But, if I cooperate, you’ll cooperate, too. It’s really simple, but it shows both revenge and forgiveness in action.
We live in a society that is significantly less violent than other, older societies. What accounts for this decline in violent behavior?
For restraining revenge and promoting peace, the state and other institutions for social control have become really important. I’ll give you an example. Back in about 1350, the murder rates in Western Europe were twenty to forty times higher than they are today. The murder rates have absolutely plummeted in the past 700 years. Most experts agree that what has happened to produce these cascades in murder rates is that instead of individuals and families having the burden of retaliating when someone dishonors them or violates their rights, the king would assume the burden of administering the law and giving out punishments when necessary. It was a very explicit part of the bargain that the strong kings and strong governments made with the people of Europe: You guys need to stop fighting each other and let us handle your grievances. As the power to use violence against other people became consolidated under strong governments, things got a lot better. But it involved a sacrifice of freedom. This really is at the heart of the social contract.
Have you any ideas about how these ideas could be used to make the world less violent?
One of the best things we can do is encourage people who are at each other’s throats to develop new ways of cooperating to get jobs done that they really care about, but which they can’t accomplish without working together. I want someone to tell me what’s wrong with this idea: Why can’t we offer micro-grants to small-scale entrepreneurs from different villages or ethnic groups that are in conflict, but make the grants contingent on these entrepreneurs developing strong partnerships with other entrepreneurs from the group that they’ve been fighting? Grants like these would provide financial incentives for developing cooperative relationships that transcend the religious, ethnic, and political fault lines that are responsible for so much of the world’s conflict. Doing business has always been a really important engine for forgiveness.
We’re interdependent with the Middle East and there are lots of tensions there.
Yes, things are tense, but we exercise a high degree of restraint with our friends there. Saudi Arabia is a great example. We are very different from Saudi Arabia in a lot of ways: ethnically, religiously, politically. They sometimes frustrate us. And yet, we handle Saudi Arabia with a high degree of tolerance because of its importance as a trading partner and strategically.
One of the more novel attempts at promoting forgiveness has been the truth and justice commissions in countries such as South Africa. I am wondering if you think they really work.
On balance, they do wonders. The process of public truth telling that they require has to be a gentle process, and it may involve forcing people, in the end, to tolerate some injustice: If we give leaders who committed abuses some leniency in return for their active participation in the process, we can get all the awfulness of the past out on the table and people can find out — literally — where the bodies are buried, and sometimes they can get heartfelt, convincing apologies. Sometimes, if you listen to the stories of survivors, they will say, “It was enough to know that this killer really was a human being and to understand some of the forces acting on him or her. Now I can put my loved one to rest and in the name of peace, I am willing to lay down my grievances.” And of course, truth and reconciliation commissions don’t give perpetrators a get-out-of-jail-free card. Many of them do hard time, but they are likely to get some mercy too. That’s usually the way truth and reconciliation commissions go.
And even those who don’t get jail sentences do lose something: They lose the appearance of moral uprightness — their ability to pretend that their hands were clean. After apartheid, this was very important. Some people wondered why the South Africans were granting leniency. But even if some perpetrators didn’t go to jail, they lost a lot, and that meant that survivors were able to get back something important, too.