Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Cognitive systems for revenge and forgiveness

Michael E. McCullougha1, Robert Kurzbana2 and Benjamin A. Tabaka3

a1 Department of Psychology, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL 33124-0751. mikem@miami.edu http://www.psy.miami.edu/faculty/mmccullough

a2 Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, and Economic Science Institute, Chapman University, Orange, CA 92866. kurzban@psych.upenn.edu http://www.psych.upenn.edu/~kurzban/

a3 Department of Psychology, University of California–Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1563. btabak@psych.ucla.edu

Abstract

Minimizing the costs that others impose upon oneself and upon those in whom one has a fitness stake, such as kin and allies, is a key adaptive problem for many organisms. Our ancestors regularly faced such adaptive problems (including homicide, bodily harm, theft, mate poaching, cuckoldry, reputational damage, sexual aggression, and the infliction of these costs on one's offspring, mates, coalition partners, or friends). One solution to this problem is to impose retaliatory costs on an aggressor so that the aggressor and other observers will lower their estimates of the net benefits to be gained from exploiting the retaliator in the future. We posit that humans have an evolved cognitive system that implements this strategy – deterrence – which we conceptualize as a revenge system. The revenge system produces a second adaptive problem: losing downstream gains from the individual on whom retaliatory costs have been imposed. We posit, consequently, a subsidiary computational system designed to restore particular relationships after cost-imposing interactions by inhibiting revenge and motivating behaviors that signal benevolence for the harmdoer. The operation of these systems depends on estimating the risk of future exploitation by the harmdoer and the expected future value of the relationship with the harmdoer. We review empirical evidence regarding the operation of these systems, discuss the causes of cultural and individual differences in their outputs, and sketch their computational architecture.

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Keywords

  • adaptationism;
  • aggression;
  • computation;
  • conflict;
  • cost/benefit analysis;
  • evolution;
  • evolutionary psychology;
  • forgiveness;
  • function;
  • punishment;
  • reconciliation;
  • social relationships;
  • revenge;
  • violence;
  • social psychology

Michael E. McCullough is a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami, Florida, where he directs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory. His research has focused on a variety of social phenomena in humans, including forgiveness, revenge, religious belief and behavior, gratitude, and self-control. He is a Fellow of Division 8 (Society for Personality and Social Psychology) of the American Psychological Association (APA), and in 2000 he won the Margaret Gorman Early Career Award from APA's Division 36 (Psychology of Religion). His most recent book is Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, published in 2008 by Jossey-Bass.

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. He has published numerous journal articles on an array of topics drawing on his background in evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics, including morality, cooperation, friendship, mate choice, supernatural beliefs, modularity, and self-control. He serves as co-Editor-in-Chief of Evolution and Human Behavior, and in 2008 he won the inaugural Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution from the Human Behavior and Evolution Society. His first book, Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, was published in 2010 by Princeton University Press.

Benjamin Tabak is an NIMH Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Miami in 2011. He has published several journal articles and book chapters on biopsychosocial factors related to interpersonal conflict and its resolution, including: “Oxytocin indexes relational distress following interpersonal harms in women,” published in 2011 in Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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