The most powerful emotion humans have is…

There is an old adage about letting things go; if you deserve them, they’ll come back. It’s been duly satirised. ‘If you love something, let it go. If it doesn’t come back, hunt it down and kill it’.

Academic values demand that the INTRUDER must be UTTERLY DESTROYED!

To me that’s insightful about the human condition as the original. And the message is simple – the indignant ‘I have been wronged’ (for whatever reason) is swiftly followed by ‘So I must destroy those who wronged me’. As I understand it, psychological experiments have shown that revenge is a more powerful emotion than any other.

The news is full of it these days – reports of behaviours that, when it boils down to it, involve people avenging themselves one way or another. It can be intellectualised and abstracted – as in academic jealousies and litigations – or it can be brutally physical, in the form of personal attacks, wars and so on.

It’s also a powerful emotion to share: people seeing the revenge of others feel fulfilled themselves. And it spirals: you feel wronged, so you avenge yourself on those who wronged you; they in turn feel wronged and avenge that, and so it goes on. It’s at its most powerful, I think, when it keys into the way people validate themselves.

I have no doubt it’s innate, likely a product of our hunter-gatherer ancestry and the way social interactions played out within groups and especially between groups. I suspect it was a survival mechanism, helping optimise the strength of leadership in a typical hunter-gatherer band (about 150 individuals) while also asserting that group against others. Recent archaeological work indicates that behaviours then were no less violent than they are today.

But I can’t help thinking, especially these days, that the better course is to let go of such things and uplift each other. Care and support is by far the best way because it builds – it doesn’t destroy. And I am not the first person to suggest it, either. Well?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

6 thoughts on “The most powerful emotion humans have is…

  1. Great point! Revenge only gives rise to more reasons for it from the opposing sides and a negative spiral keeps going on, hurting more and more people.
    I think it is time we realize that if we want help, care, love and support, we have to drop revenge, let it go and start building positive relationships where we can embrace our differences and agree to disagree.

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  2. Absolutely. We humans have the capacity to innovate, improve, and build, to create a society or civilization that fosters the best in all and that we can hand down to future generations. We also have the ability to embrace our most basic instincts and sink into revenge cycles that lead to group think, mob rule, and ultimately leaders who lead via fear. Thus far, over the course of human history, the builders have managed to maintain the upper hand, but only enough to maintain forward progress overall. The destroyers are many, their biographies infamous. The way down the revenge road begins with a door that’s always open, always waiting, and its held open by those who preach fear mongering and revenge. Such leaders—and they exist in every country—are a recurring test for our ability to hang-on to the mental gains we’ve made. It’s important to note there’s a difference between measured, considered responses and fevered revenge. Knowing the difference is imperative. For instance, the peace treaty ending WWI was revenge and removing Hitler from power was a response.

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  3. Well I am both a misanthrope and a pessimist (it’s tough, but someone has to do it), so I don’t really have anything helpful to say. It’s hard to believe that we can put ourselves on the Moon and send probes to the outer planets, but collectively can’t seem to overcome these basic emotions. But there’s always hope, I suppose — the thing found at the bottom of Pandora’s box.


  4. The ability to care and the opposing ability to /hold a grudge/ seem to be innate in humans. That is why our history is the way it is, and why we had to develop a society with laws to allow us to live together. Perhaps it’s also the reason we objectified our dual natures into our mythology – angels and demons. 😦

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