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Nation Home > Health
The Payback Principle

Samineh I. Shaheem (Out of Mind) / 22 February 2014

Vengeful behavior is designed to warn and keep others away from causing harm in the future.

If you had issues with a friend, what would you do? Go out for coffee and share your concerns? Talk to family members or other friends about it? How far would you take it? Go to their workplace in attempt to cause a scene, even if you end up looking unstable? Put their kitten in the microwave? If you’re anything like me, you probably went back and re-read the last sentence to make sure your brain wasn’t playing tricks on you. I wish it were. According to an article in the Daily Mail, a woman killed her neighbour’s ten-week-old kitten by cooking it in a microwave. This unimaginable act was then followed by a text from the same woman that read: ‘The cat? Karma’ (December 14th 2011).

When questioned about the verdict, the owner of the cat said the incident had been ‘one of the most horrendous experiences of my life. What sort of a person does something so cold and calculating? I believe in karma too and hopefully the magistrates will throw the book at her.’

Letting the law handle such cases of course is the right thing to do but there are some who take the ‘book’ into their own hands, hurling it in inconceivable ways. It’s not a long-term solution, usually harms all involved and it spawns a vicious cycle of hate so how do we explain this innate thirst for revenge?

We’ve all felt wronged by someone, little or large. Whether you’ve been a victim of an atrocious crime or had your parking spot stolen, feeling mistreated invites us into a dangerous thinking tunnel of gaining vengeance. The idea of ‘just deserts’ serves to provide an emotional catharsis to those who feel they have been unjustly treated.

So are you a ‘don’t get mad, get even’ type or more inclined to live by Gandhi’s ethos that an ‘eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind’ or as Confucius stated, ‘before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves’ indicating that revenge is a desire which should be overcome and has no place amongst moral citizens.

Instead of retribution, reconciliation should be the main social aim. But can we all take this pious approach of choosing forgiveness over reprisal? The most common situations where the revenge rat appears seems to be:

  • Cases of adultery
  • Feeling humiliated and belittled at work
  • Deceit 
  • Being bullied
  • Theft or fraud
  • To protect principles of honor and shame

While some regard revenge as barbaric, others see it as a primal and instinctual drive. Michael McCullough, a professor of Psychology at the University of Miami, explains that revenge serves an evolutionary purpose of deterrence of maltreatment. So vengeful behavior is, in fact, designed to warn and keep others away from causing harm in the future.

Biologically speaking, MRI scans have shown that the reward centre in our brains is activated when we think about revenge. The feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine, is released in the same manner as it is when we eat sweets. However, this isn’t the only section; areas of the brain concerned with feelings of sadness, ambivalence and past tragedies are also triggered.

Researchers at Colgate University in New York conducted a series of experiments and their results showed that contrary to popular belief, a majority of participants felt angrier after they had sought revenge. Instead of providing closure, vengeance achieved the opposite.  Other studies claim that if taken to far, thoughts of vengeance have a number of disadvantages, including:

  • Highlights pain of the past
  • Focus shifts from the present and the future
  • Goals are abandoned
  • Depression
  • Feelings of anger and aggression grow
  • Relationships suffer
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Work and social life take a backseat

Whatever function revenge may serve biologically or psychologically, getting even is emotionally expensive. In the process, we damage ourselves and other innocent bystanders because you actually become a victim of manipulation by morphing into what you hate. While social justice is a fundamental pillar of lawful societies, becoming a vigilante may cause more suffering than satisfaction. If you feel slighted, ignored, degraded, or hurt by another, spend some time acknowledging and absorbing your anger. You can’t simply change people, and you’ll rarely get anywhere by exacting punishment. As hard as it can be sometimes, you just have to be better. You won’t be happy trying to make other people miserable. A more effective means of healing is to let go of the past and think of forgiveness as the key that can release you form that episode of your life. There are so many people from terribly abusive backgrounds who have risen above their tragic fate and formed happy and functional lives. Moving on, enjoying life and succeeding are without a doubt the best mélange of revenge.

Samineh I. Shaheem is an assistant professor of psychology, author, learning & development consultant and owner of Life Clubs UAE. She has studied and worked in different parts of the world, including the USA, Canada, UK, Netherlands, and now the UAE. She co hosts a radio program on 103.8 FM Dubai Eye (Psyched Sundays, Voices of Diversity 10-12pm) every Sunday morning discussing the most relevant psychological issues in our community. Twitter: @saminehshaheem/Facebook: Life Clubs UAE. Please forward your thoughts and suggestions for future articles to OutOfMindContact@gmail.com

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