David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton are unafraid of explaining modern social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. As famous communicators of evolutionary psychology, they see in an understanding of biology the promise of explaining humanity. In their latest column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why We Needed Bin Laden Dead“, Barash and Lipton seek to explain national bloodthirst from a biological perspective.
Their article points out that our thirst for revenge has a biological basis that can be considered at both the proximate and ultimate levels (I always appreciate when these two perspectives are carefully disentangled!). At the proximal level, injury, loss, or insult cause physiological stress: what Barash and Lipton call “subordination stress”. Like all forms of stress, our physiological reaction to being wronged is designed to promote behaviors that will benefit us, in this case behaviors aimed at seeking revenge.
But what is the ultimate reason for this vengeful behavior? Clearly our reaction to subordination is not always to seek revenge: in the face of an extreme threat most people will put worries about revenge aside, focusing instead on how to escape. But when there is a perceived opportunity to enact revenge, many animals will take that opportunity. If revenge is risky, why take that risk? The answer, according to Barash and Lipton, is reputation: revenge is a social act designed to show others that any offense will be met with punishment. In the words of the streetwise New York City middle school students who I used to teach, “I don’t stay hit”. To allow an injury to go unpunished is to endure an additional injury to one’s reputation. And in humans and many other social animals, reputation is critical because it determines one’s social role. Thus, the ultimate goal of revenge is to prevent future injury (what Barash and Lipton call “payback with a purpose”) by establishing a reputation for being tough in the face of challenge.
Barash and Lipton even have an explanation for the common phenomenon of ‘passing on the pain’, where the abused seek to abuse someone else. It is a well-known psychological fact that one of the best ways of producing an abuser is to abuse that person, especially when that person is subordinate or vulnerable (as is the case with various forms of child abuse). But why would that be? Again, Barash and Lipton have a proximate/ultimate explanation. In the proximate time frame, the person whose boss chewed him out kicks his dog to alleviate physiological stress. According to Barash and Lipton, we literally are designed to feel relief from our anxiety when we pass that anxiety on to someone else. This does not sound very nice, so what could be its rationale? Again, we need to look at the ultimate benefits of a behavior to understand why it might be motivated by particular circumstances. In this case, our propensity to abuse others after sustaining abuse stems from our evolutionary history in hierarchically-organized social groups. If one cannot reinstate one’s reputation by directly enacting revenge on one’s attacker (perhaps because that attacker maintains some insurmountable advantage), one can at least prevent the attack from further lowering one in the hierarchy by victimizing someone else. Through this lens, cycles of abuse can be seen as the mechanism for maintaining finely-gradated social hierarchies: not very nice, but at least evolutionarily explainable.
I think that there is some strong truth to what Barash and Lipton point out, but I maintain that they omit a couple of critical topics as they try to stretch the body of research on individual revenge instincts around the larger social phenomenon embodied by Bin Laden bloodlust. The main problem here is one of scale: all of this evolutionary psychology makes sense on the scale of an individual and his local social group, but how do Barash and Lipton connect this ‘revenge instinct’ to the widespread glee displayed by Americans after Bin Laden’s death? The short answer is that they do not, and although they allude to the multiple levels present here they do little to bridge the gap between them. To say that we seek revenge to individual injuries does little to explain a collective thirst for revenge on Bin Laden unless one can establish that people identify so strongly with their larger social group that their individual physiological responses are keyed to the fate of that larger group. To put it another way, most of the people celebrating Bin Laden’s death would — if Barash and Lipton are correct — have to be sating a desire for revenge born of a perceived injury to the reputation of their country. Because most of us did not suffer a direct loss as a result of the 9/11 attacks, the only way our reactions could fit into the framework laid out by Barash and Lipton would be if a large number of Americans had a physiological reaction (so-called “subordination stress”) in response to the attack leveled on the United States. I am not suggesting that this is not possible, but if this kind of individual reaction is behind our collective thirst for Bin Laden’s death, then the physiological component of this story is dwarfed in significance by the higher-level selection component.
Without really knowing if this makes sense, I am intrigued by the idea that our allegiances might be so strongly tuned to such a large group identity. Sure, we all know there is patriotism out there, but to say that our individual physiological reactions are tuned to the reputation of our country is a major endorsement of higher-level selection. Why else would we care so passionately about our collective reputation? And let us not forget that the direct perpetrators of the 9/11 attack were suicidal: there is not much in the way of reputation to be salvaged for a dead man, so the motivation of our attackers must have been similarly aimed at a higher level. In fact it is nearly impossible to explain the events of 9/11 without admitting that human beings will go to great lengths to defend the reputation of their respective groups. Whether we are speaking of the firefighters who rushed into the Twin Towers or the hijackers who flew the planes into those same towers, one commonality remains: a willingness to identify with and sacrifice for injured parties within one’s own social group. That Barash and Lipton do not point this out more clearly is disappointing.
The clear willingness to identify with the suffering of other members of one’s social group (even an immense social group such as a country or religion) suggests that empathy as well as enmity is at play here. The empathy component is not discussed by Barash and Lipton, which might leave some with the wrong impression that negative emotions motivate most of our behaviors. And it is not just that empathy allows us to identify with and defend the reputation of a comrade: empathic responses also offer an alternative to tit-for-tat cycles of revenge. Probably the best treatment of this topic that I have read is Frans de Waal’s Age of Empathy (de Waal 2009). De Waal’s research has focused on two social strategies that offer alternatives to revenge: reconciliation and consolation. Reconciliation, which is common amongst many primates, involves the reconnection of two individuals following a fight or other stressful interaction. Often the individual initiating the reconciliation was the one who perpetrated the original injury or came out on top in the conflict. Given that this is the case, one could argue that reconciliation is a ‘preemptive revenge avoidance’ behavior. Consolation, which occurs in a smaller subset of social animals, involves the intervention of a third party, whose acknowledgement of the harm done to the wronged individual helps alleviate stress. One could argue that consolation is a behavior designed to maintain harmony within a group by reducing or smoothing over hierarchical conflicts. Perhaps consolation and reconciliation are not apropos to the more specific discussion of Bin Laden because these revenge-averting behaviors are generally limited to within-group relationships. Still, going back to the argument that much of human social interaction is now dictated by higher-level groupings, one could at least acknowledge that sometimes countries and religions engage in conciliatory behaviors. Revenge is not the only tool of diplomacy at any level of social complexity.
To their credit, Barash and Lipton point out that understanding our revenge instincts is not the same as endorsing revenge (the ‘is’ does not prescribe an ‘ought’). They point out that allowing proximal stress relief to be a primary motivator is dangerous (which reminded me of how David Sloan Wilson conceptualizes violence in his poignant piece “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Genetic Determinism” [Wilson 2007, Chapter 14]). They also make it clear that revenge and justice are not the same thing, although we frequently mistake them for each other. In a nod to the underdeveloped issue of group revenge, they suggest that institutions (in the form of police, courts, prisons, and the military) have taken over the role of punisher, perhaps to prevent us from suffering endless cycles of tit-for-tat revenge between aggrieved groups.
On a personal note, I have to say that my own reaction to Bin Laden’s death does not perfectly match the predictions made by Barash and Lipton’s ‘revenge instinct’ hypothesis. For me there was some joy at his death, mostly from knowing that this person who had orchestrated such demonic mayhem could no longer directly cause harm. But this joy was strongly tempered by fresh anxiety that stems from my understanding of the larger phenomena of colonialism and terrorism. First and foremost I recognized that Bin Laden is only a small part of a larger threat, and that the affront his death will represent to his comrades may motivate counter-revenge. This is a subtle issue because I know that his ‘punishment’ (a nice word for assassination) may simultaneously discourage and encourage future retaliation, and determining which effect is stronger on balance is not easy. Even more subtle is the issue of culture: Bin Laden is a far more important figure as a cultural entity than a biological entity. And while he may now be biologically dead, he is far from culturally dead. He will no longer produce new culture, but what he has already produced still reverberates, and may be amplified by his death. For these reasons it was impossible for me to celebrate his death with all the vigor predicted by Barash and Lipton. Does this mean that my knowledge can overcome my base physiological responses? This would be an interesting subject to investigate further, because it would be remarkable if my intellectual history could have such a strong modifying effect on my base physiological processes.
I also wonder whether we all require direct revenge on a villain like Bin Laden, who was for most of us ‘only’ an indirect threat. Based on Barash and Lipton’s hypothesis, the families of 9/11 victims should display the most bloodthirst for revenge (because that family’s reputation was directly despoiled), while the rest of us should feel less slighted by the 9/11 attacks and therefore less bloodthirsty. This might be the pattern for some, but it does not seem to fit perfectly with the overall pattern: many 9/11 families have spoken out for an end to violence, while there are plenty of people who suffered no direct harm on 9/11 who vehemently call for revenge. One way of conceptualizing this apparent paradox is to appeal to a multilevel reputational approach: those who seek revenge despite not having suffered personal/local loss tend to be those who identify most strongly with the higher-level target of the 9/11 attacks, the United States itself. If this is the case, this represents an astonishing re-purposing of a trait designed to function at the local level to the demands of a modern multilevel society.
To add to the overall insight provided by this article, it does not hurt that Barash and Lipton leave us with some philosophical wisdom bestowed by The Princess Bride.