Revenge Psychology Is Driving Global Rejection of Establishment, Oxford Neuroscientist Says — Quartz
Donald Trump wouldn’t be President of the United States without the votes of many, including Obamacare members and immigrants, who are likely to find themselves in a worse situation because of its policy. For some Democratic supporters, this widespread voting against their own interests may seem incomprehensible. For Molly Crockett, a neuroscientist and experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford, this makes perfect sense.
Crockett studies the psychology of punishment and found that, rather than accepting what they see as an unfair scenario, people often choose to punish others, even at personal cost to themselves. This desire to punish, she thinks, can motivate those who feel they are getting a bad deal to vote against the political establishment that the alternative is truly a better option.
The “ultimatum game”
A classic way to study the human desire to punish is to use laboratory variations of the “ultimatum game.” In this configuration, a player receives money and has the option of sharing it with a second player. This second player can accept the portion of money offered or reject it. If they reject it, neither player receives a penny.
This experiment has been studied for almost 40 years and researchers have found that if the first player offers the second player less than 30% of the total sum, most second players will see this as an unfair deal and reject it. They will give up all the money themselves in order to punish the first player.
Crockett sees popular support for Trump and Brexit as concrete examples of the punitive behavior she observes in the lab. “Some of the sentiments expressed by voters both in the [Brexit] the U.S. referendum and election suggested there was a motivation to punish there,” she says. “It certainly won’t be the case for all voters, but the quotes I’ve read from some are consistent with what people say in our experiences when they’re treated unfairly and they’d rather punish than punish. to be at the end. of a bad deal.
Revenge and punishment can be addictive
Crockett’s experiments have disturbing implications. First of all, she brain imaging studies show that the act of punishing engages the part of the brain that signals the reward. It is the same area of the brain that is hijacked by addictive drugs. “Certainly the raw ingredients are there, on a behavioral and neural level, to express moral outrage in order to have an addictive quality,” says Crockett.
She also found that people often justify their actions by saying they were trying to teach a moral lesson, rather than because the act of punishment feels good. (This remains true even when a punishment is carried out in secret, and the recipient will never know his punishment to absorb his lesson.) In retrospect, we tend to attribute a moral motive to actions that are essentially revenge.
“The data suggests that people tell themselves and others that they punish for moral reasons when in fact the motivations are more complicated than that,” says Crockett. “The motive to hurt someone who you think has hurt you is a very powerful force.”
So, for example, a desire to punish immigrants who you perceive to have taken something from you might be reframed as an effort to create security. It will come as no surprise, given the fractured state of politics around the world, that people mete out harsher punishments to those from different social groups.
Stressful times and social media make us want to punish people
But if humans have always had this desire to punish, why hasn’t it become as politically evident as in recent months? Crockett’s work shows that serotonin levels affect motivations for punishment, and given that other research suggests that long-term stress affects serotonin production, it could be that large-scale stressful events (such as a economic recession) increase the desire to punish.
Social media is another troubling factor, with the potential to further fuel the desire for revenge. “I see social media as exploiting the punishment motive in a number of ways that can be harmful,” Crockett says. “We know that punishment engages the motivational circuitry of the brain and that there is an immediately rewarding aspect to punishment. When you express your outrage on Facebook or Twitter, not only do you get the immediate gratification of posting that, but you also get repeated and amplified reinforcement of that behavior because people like what you say, they share it, they repost it. – and it creates a highly self-reinforcing cycle.
This behavior is apparent across the political spectrum, Crockett says. “I see, on both sides, people being repeatedly humiliated, expressing their outrage,” she says. “It’s getting stronger and it’s separating people even more…I’m very worried about how things are going.”
There are no clear answers on how to reduce the desire to punish, but Crockett thinks being aware of this tendency can help temper instinctive acts of revenge. Punishing others is good in the short term, and we can’t ignore this uncomfortable truth. But if we don’t curb this trend, the long-term consequences could be punitive for all of us.