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Is Revenge Really a Disease

Monday 19 May 2008 at 3:23 pm. Used tags: , ,

Yesterday the NY Times magazine published, in abbreviated form, my letter regarding Alex Kotlowitz's piece about epidemiologist Gary Slutkin and his program to reduce inner city violence by conceptualizing and treating it as a communicable disease ("Blocking the Transmission of Violence, NYT Magazine, May 4). Here's the full text of the letter that I sent.

Gary Slutkin is right to use biological language for describing humans’ desire for revenge, but epidemiologists' language of infection and treatment misses the mark. As a scientist who has studied revenge for 15 years, I think the language of evolutionary biology more accurately depicts what revenge is all about. Vengeance bears the hallmarks of a trait that exists today because of the social problems it solved during human evolution. Research shows that revenge is effective at discouraging wrongdoers from re-offending, warning others not to follow suit, and preventing cheaters from taking advantage of our trust and cooperative instincts. Before laws, police, and courts protected individual interests, we had revenge. When social disadvantage and social pressure conspire to alienate people from those institutions today, people return to revenge for self-protection. And neuroscience shows that vengeful feelings arise from normal brain processes: Feeling vengeful after victimization shows that your mind works the way it should, not that you're in the throes of an illness. Revenge inflicts horrendous pain on families and stiff costs on society, but Slutkin's admirable (and perhaps effective) strategy doesn't need to rely on the disease metaphor. Humans originally domesticated vengeance by replacing it with social institutions that could serve the same functions--without the heartache. Slutkin's program, and the need for it, reminds us that the human penchant for revenge is alive and well, and that it can be managed by controlling the social and cultural forces that evoke it.

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