The Neuroscience of Revenge
In the 1800s the French coined the term- ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’. The idea behind this is that revenge is more satisfying when one has had time to prepare vengeance that is well-planned, long-feared, or unexpected.
We feel rejected when our friends don’t return our texts, and our dates ghost us, we don’t get that promotion at work. We have all had that feeling when we have been wronged we want revenge, especially in break-ups- it brings the arsehole out in all of us.
Rejections can be so damaging that if they occur persistently it can be linked to health outcomes that are worse than smoking or obesity. Rejection’s association with poor health is likely because rejection can activate the same pain pathways in the brain as a physical injury.
Serial killer Ted Bundy murdered 30 women across multiple states of America, they all had one thing in common, but perhaps the most striking was their similar appearance. It soon became apparent that these women were remarkably similar to a woman that Bundy dated as a young man, who has finished their romantic affair. So, did this experience of rejection push Bundy along his homicidal path?
When we feel ostracised or shunned, we can behave more aggressively than usual. New research into this area tested this notion of social rejection, when we feel wounded and unwanted, it triggers a need to repair our mood by whatever means possible, including the feeling of causing harm to those who have made us suffer. It was found that aggression can be a viable method for mood repair.
The researchers asked 156 participants to write an essay on a personal topic, then to swap their essays with other participants to receive feedback on what they’d written. One group of participants received nasty feedback (actually composed by the researchers): “one of the worst essays I have EVER read”. The researcher measured the participant’s mood before and then were given an opportunity for a symbolic form of aggression: sticking pins in a virtual voodoo doll imagined as the person who had given them the mean feedback. This act did indeed repair mood for the rejected participants, to the point where their mood was indistinguishable from participants who’d received kind feedback.
In a further study conducted by the same research team, they conducted MRI’s on 60 healthy young adults. Participants played a computerised ball-tossing game inside the MRI scanner. The focus of the game was to imagine a real life game of catch with two other partners, after playing the game for several minutes, the two partners stopped throwing them the ball and tossed it to each other repeatedly while the participant watched. This seemingly innocuous form of exclusion elicited strong feelings of rejection. The participant came out of the MRI scanner calling the other participants ‘jerks’, for leaving them out.
After this rejection induction, participants were given the opportunity to get back at their rejecters and repeatedly blast one of them with a sound that would be uncomfortable. The higher the volume, the greater the revenge.
The researchers focused specific activity on the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC). The VLPFC serves to inhibit our feelings of pain and distress.
(I have written about the VLPFC before and the role it plays in ADHD- see link https://www.acamh.org/research-digests/cognitive-neuroscience-aetiology-adhd/).
It was found that the more that participants recruited the VLPFC during rejection, the more revenge they wanted to inflict upon their rejecters- suggesting the more our brain effortlessly inhibits the pain of rejection, the more that we seek to harm. But why?
To find out, let’s have a look at what the brain was doing during the noise-blasting revenge portion of the study- it shows during ‘revenge’, participants recruited the reward circuitry of the brain. The brain’s reward system is a group of neural structures responsible for incentive salience (motivation, desire, or craving for a reward), associative learning (primarily positive reinforcement and classical conditioning), and positively-valenced emotions, particularly ones which involve pleasure as a core component (such as joy or euphoria). Suggesting, we are conditioned to feel pleasure after seeking revenge on someone.
Therefore, the results support that revenge is indeed sweet. The more we seek to suppress the pain of rejection, the sweeter we find revenge. This may be because we have fatigued our brain’s inhibitory abilities during rejection, resulting in an unrestrained reward response during revenge.
So, how can we use these results to make the world a better place?
Somewhere down the line, something has gone seriously wrong to result in us being conditioned to think revenge is sweet. Furthermore, it shows that attempting to suppress the pain of rejection is a bad strategy. This suppressive approach fatigues our inhibitory resources and leaves our unholiest desires unrestricted. We should find ways to engage with them more mindfully.
Indeed, our biology informs our psychology and suggests clear ways to break the rejection-aggression link.
We have all heard the old phrase life is 10% what happens to us and 90% how we react to it. We should learn to engage mindful ways how to deal with the emotions. Emotions themselves are energy in motion; we are not meant to hold on to them we are expected to learn from them.
Because of these profound costs of rejection, interventions that help people better manage their social pain are needed. Such as mindfulness, this refers to a psychological process characterised by attention to and awareness of one’s current experience and also entails a non-judgmental approach towards these feelings.
People who use mindfulness in their daily routines tend to have better responses to rejection. Research into the mindful brain and rejection suggests that mindful individuals are better at coping with social rejection because they don’t attempt to suppress the experience in the first place. Such results imply that mindfully-accepting, rather than suppressing, such social pain appears to go a long way towards healing from social injuries. Harnessing these mechanisms of the mindful brain is likely to help many people cope with the sting of rejection.