Is it such a bad thing to want revenge? If you have been wronged, betrayed, denied justice, don’t you think about how you would like to get revenge on the one who has made you miserable? We tend to demonize revenge and treat it as something out of our prehistoric, caveman past. We like to think that in the 21st century we are too modern, too enlightened for such a base emotion. Not so fast, says psychologist and researcher Michael McCullough at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. He states that the motive for revenge is hard wired into us and has evolved with us. We can see revenge at work even in animal societies such as the chimpanzee and the Japanese Macaque monkey. He argues that for most all of human history, it is the fear of retaliation that has kept violence and deception in check. Thus, this fear of revenge has contributed to the stability of society and to the safety of social groups.
On the other hand, McCullough argues that the desire to forgive is also hard-wired into us; it too is a basic instinct. Forgiveness has had evolutionary advantages. The act of tolerance toward one’s fellow citizens, and the tolerance for each other’s mistakes has kept societies harmonious and stable. If we never forgave each other, society would fall apart because we would be constantly at each other’s throats.
When are people most likely to forgive someone? McCullough states that it is when the person who has been wronged is reassured that they are safe from any future harm. It is also when the relationship between the two has “value”—they have a personal history together and anticipate being beneficial to each other in the future. This may help us explain why it is often easier to forgive someone known to us than someone who is a stranger. When asked what a person can do when he or she is having trouble with forgiving someone, McCullough answered, “Forgiveness is often a phone call away.” He stated that he learned through his research that most of those who held long-standing grudges against another had never actually spoken to that person. McCullough found that, in most cases, a single conversation cleared up the problem.
McCullough was interviewed by Krista Tippett on the radio program On Being on May 2, 2012. You can listen to the entire program at this web link.
You may also want to listen to some of the personal stories recorded there and read the remarks of listeners who sent in their personal responses to the program.