How the Brain Processes Rejection and Revenge

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How the Brain Processes Rejection and Revenge

Rejection is one of the reasons behind a person's aggressive behavior as studies prove / Photo by: Daniel M Ernst via Shutterstock


Rejection is what drives aggressive behaviors as proven in several studies. This was demonstrated in the experiments performed by David S. Chester and C. Nathan Dewall, researchers from the University of Kentucky. In their experiments, some participants were made to feel rejected. Later, they were allowed to retaliate by blasting loud noises into their rejecters’ ears and even those who did not reject them in the first place.

It was shown in their study which was published the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal that when an individual is provoked they start to lean more towards aggression. They also posit that people exact revenge because “provocation makes aggression hedonically rewarding”. NeuroScience News says that in their study, The Pleasure of Revenge: Retaliatory Aggression Arises From a Neural Imbalance Toward Reward, revenge was also found to help enhance a person’s mood. However, seeking revenge goes beyond merely trying to improve one’s mood.

Brain Regions Activated After Rejection and When Seeking Revenge

During the rejection experiments, Chester and Dewall observed the brains of the rejected subjects using an MRI scanner. They examined the area of the brain known as the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (VLFC), a region responsible for restraining feelings of pain and distress. The VLFC aids in curbing the pain one feels from social rejection.

They discovered that the more the rejected participants activated the VLFC, it resulted in them exacting more harm on those who rejected them. This shows that the more the brain attempts to push down feelings of rejection, the more it prompts someone to avenge themselves.

When they analyzed the brain of the rejected participants during the revenge portion, they found that when they inflicted harm on their rejectors, the reward circuitry of the brain was activated.

Results of their study lead the authors to conclude that “the more we seek to suppress the sting of rejection, the sweeter we find the revenge.” Chester infers that this may have been induced by exhausting the brain’s restraining capacity while feeling rejected. In turn, this leads a person to have a reckless reward response.

This may also be why some individuals have the inclination to always act violently in different times and circumstances. Since the reward activity of the brain is uninhibited, the brain encourages them to act aggressively.

The ventolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible in plotting revenge / Photo by: pathdoc via Shutterstock


Theories On Why "Revenge is Sweet"?

Mario Gollwitzer, a German psychologist, proposes that these are the reasons individuals derive pleasure from revenge:

Comparative suffering

This means that the person feels justified as long as their offender is in pain or is being miserable. Merely seeing the one who hurt them suffer makes them feel that there is emotional balance in the universe again. In this scenario, the victim would feel content to know that their offender is afflicted, whether they caused the pain or not.

Understanding hypothesis

In this scenario, the victim is not appeased just by seeing their offender suffer, they should also be able to associate the revenge with the cause of revenge. If the offender does not understand why the victim wants to retaliate, they do not feel justified.

Adaptive Functions of Revenge

According to Michael McCollough, author of the book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct (2018), and his colleagues, Benjamin Tabak of the University of Miami and Robert Kurzban of the University, revenge has three adaptive functions:

Preventing offenses

Acts of revenge committed by one person are used to show a community that there are particular behaviors which make a person more likely to seek revenge. This means that revenge directly restrains an offender from doing the same offense. Revenge, in this case, is not just meant as a reaction to a specific offense, but to keep other wrongdoings from happening. When revenge is perceived in this manner, it has a positive effect on people’s culture. As a result, societies become more cooperative and productive.

Revenge can distract the offender from making his or her shenanigans / Photo by: EllieStark via Shutterstock


Establishing acceptable behaviors

In retaliating to some specific behaviors, this sets which behaviors are acceptable and keeps people from the need to have confrontations. A person’s reputation can help prevent someone from wanting to commit acts of vengeance.

Altruistic punishment

This third adaptive function is that it prevents the threat of revenge and encourages positive behaviors.

Revenge and Closure

Many psychologists believe that a majority of people seek revenge to have an emotional catharsis. There is the idea that if a person expresses their aggression, it will disappear.

However, the Association for Psychological Science says it is not certain that just because an individual gets back at their offender it will make them cease from anger.

People have the notion that if they are able to commit acts of vengeance on an offender it will ease their pain and help them get closure. The truth is that instead of reaching an emotional catharsis, it makes them focus more on their vengeful act and feel worse compared to people who could not get their revenge.

Kevin Carlsmith, one of the authors of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, says that doubt can prolong and enhance emotional experiences. He adds that what revenge-seekers unintentionally do is that they extend the unpleasant encounter. Meanwhile, individuals who do not have the opportunity to execute their revenge are kind of forced to move on and concentrate on other things. As a result, this makes them happier than their avenged counterparts.



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