Society could reduce the number of senseless killings on campuses and in workplaces and shopping malls if it paid closer attention to aggrieved individuals, many of whom were the targets of prior bullying, a prominent psychologist says.
Michael McCullough, who has made a 20-year study of revenge, contends that after massacres the public mistakenly focuses on the mental illness of the perpetrators and their ability to obtain guns, rather than on recognizing, and thwarting, the repeat of the kind of bullying that often led to their horrifying crimes.
When the U.S. Secret Service analyzed targeted school violence between 1974 and 2000, McCullough recalled, 71% of the attackers had a history of being “persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others prior to the incident.” Moreover, the desire to obtain revenge for that history of mistreatment was directly implicated in a factor in 61% of the crimes.
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“Bullying, followed by a desire for revenge, may therefore be a key dynamic behind many targeted school killings,” McCullough writes in his new book “Beyond Revenge”(Jossey-Bass), subtitled, “The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.”
The desire for revenge is, in fact, a surprisingly common response to bullying. McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, said that one study of boys aged nine to 14 found that 43 percent of those bullied “felt a desire for vengeance in response.”
When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold went on the killing spree at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., that claimed a score of lives, McCullough pointed out, they shouted “this is revenge.” He judged the revenge likely was for bullying.
“Without the desire for revenge, it’s hard to imagine that troubled, gang-involved, or gun-obsessed teens would respond to bullying with lethal violence,” the psychologist says. “Ignore the desire for revenge and you miss a big part of the puzzle — -in many cases, the biggest part.”
“The desire for revenge isn’t a disease to which certain unfortunate people fall prey,” he writes. “Instead, it’s a universal trait of human nature, crafted by natural selection, that exists today because it was adaptive in the ancestral environment in which the human species evolved.” For example, if a tribe engaged in a revenge killing of a foreign perpetrator that killed one of their own, their revenge prevented the perpetrator from killing again. Similarly, among nations, when France and England declared war on Germany after Hitler attacked Poland in 1939 it was because they surmised their turn was just a matter of time.
On the eve of virtually every U.S. entry into war since the Spanish-American War of 1898, McCullough noted that presidents have swayed public opinion “by creating the public perception that the nation had been victimized by unprovoked sneak attacks, and that swift retaliatory action with overwhelmingly destructive force was the only rational and self-interested course the country could take.”
A readiness to seek revenge, McCullough points out, “served important functions for ancestral humans, and it’s still capable of serving many of those important functions today.” He adds, “If we can better appreciate the naturalness of revenge, the functions revenge arose to serve, and the factors that elicit the motivation to seek revenge, we’ll be better equipped to change the world so that revenge becomes less destructive and less common.”
McCullough’s book quotes naturalist Charles Darwin, who wrote in his “The Descent of Man” that man and the higher animals have common instincts that include “similar passions, affections, and emotions, even the more complex ones, such as jealousy, suspicion, emulation, gratitude, and magnanimity; they practice deceit and are revengeful…”
McCullough concludes from this “the desire for revenge must have been effective in helping organisms to solve specific adaptive problems” that, “if not surmounted, would have detracted from reproductive success.” Moreover, he believes, the motivation to seek revenge “must have been transmittable through some mechanism” in human beings through the centuries.
“Today, we may view revenge as a problem (and it is) but through the lens of evolution,” McCullough writes, “it’s also a solution” but “this doesn’t mean that the behavior is morally justified or that the tendency should be indulged.”
The way to undercut individuals from taking revenge, and it apparently is by no means an easy task, McCullough writes, is to make social environments — -homes, neighborhoods, nations, etc. — -“less abundant in the factors that evoke the desire for revenge, and make them more abundant in the factors that evoke forgiveness.”
He said revenge is especially prevalent where law and order have broken down, as is the case in some U.S. cities and in Iraq, where U.S. occupiers disbanded the Iraqi army. By contrast, the rise of the nation-state that emerged after Europe’s medieval chaos vastly reduced random killings when people sensed they did not have to take the law into their own hands. Instead, they relied on justice from the state.
McCullough believes teachers and school guidance counselors need to warn pupils against bullying and workplace supervisors need to create an atmosphere where employees with grudges can seek relief. “Every employee manual should inform workers where they can go to complain when they are systematically harassed by a coworker or supervisor. And human resources people need to look for resentful people carrying grudges.”
The good news is that if revenge is carried in the genes, then so is forgiveness, McCullough writes. “The capacity to forgive is every bit as authentic, every bit as intrinsic to human nature, and every bit as much a product of natural selection as is our penchant for revenge.” Forgiveness, he writes, is “the glue that keeps society from coming apart at the seams” and people forgive to allow “valuable relationships” to continue, “often better and stronger than they were before the harm occurred.”
(Sherwood Ross is a Miami-based writer and public relations consultant who can be reached at email@example.com. Disclosure: Ross is a graduate of the University of Miami. Professor McCullough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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