Revenge and retribution: Beware the tricks our minds play

In his NYTimes op-ed, Harvard psychologist and author of the recently published Stumbling on Happiness Daniel Gilbert says:

… In virtually every human society, “He hit me first” provides an acceptable rationale for doing that which is otherwise forbidden. Both civil and religious law provide long lists of behaviors that are illegal or immoral — unless they are responses in kind, in which case they are perfectly fine.

After all, it is wrong to punch anyone except a puncher, and our language even has special words — like “retaliation” and “retribution” and “revenge” — whose common prefix is meant to remind us that a punch thrown second is legally and morally different than a punch thrown first.

That’s why participants in every one of the globe’s intractable conflicts — from Ireland to the Middle East — offer the even-numberedness of their punches as grounds for exculpation.

The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. […]

[Bold emphasis added]

People count differently! Gilbert goes on to describe some interesting experiments that show clearly the asymmetry with which we perceive — and justify — our own ‘second blow’ and that of the other guy. It may not help resolve any of the conflicts (or wars) we (or our societies) get into, but it certainly helps us understand one of the important ways in which our minds trick us into not-quite-rational ways of perceiving ourselves and the world around us.

* * *

Here’s the link to Gilbert’s blog post where he provides some additional perspectives behind this op-ed.

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