How Brains Chemically Control the Feeling of Revenge

Revenge is a way to make the person who wronged you suffer the same way you suffered. It’s a way of establishing fair dealing to some. To many, it may serve as a form of protection or a kind of enforcement of social cooperation. The craving for revenge can be the result of a feeling of anger and resentment.

Well, what happens in our brains when these negative emotions are felt?

Scientists from the University Of Geneva, Switzerland, have the answer apparently. They have built up a monetary game in which a member needs to tackle with the fair behavior of one player and the unjust frustrations of another player.

They wanted to know that which areas of the brain responded when the person became angry and how this feeling turns into revengeful behavior.

Olga Klimecki-Lenz, game developer said that almost 25 people participated in the study. The participant has economic interactions with two players, whose behavior is really pre-programmed – which he doesn’t know about. One is friendly, offers the participant only equal useful financial interactions and sends nice messages, while the other player makes sure to multiply only his own profits, going against the participant’s interest and sending annoying messages.

The game took place in three stages, among which the member is installed in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner enabling researchers to measure his brain activity. The member is then dealt with the photos of the other two players and the messages and money related exchanges that he gets and issues. In the primary stage, the member is in charge and picks which benefits he appropriates to whom.

Olga said that they observed that on average, participants here are fair towards both other players. The second phase is that of irritation: the participant inactively receives the decisions of the other two players, and especially the provocations and injustice of the unfair player, which tempt a feeling of anger rated on a scale from 0 to 10 by the participant himself.

In the last phase, the participant is again the master of the game and can choose to take revenge or not by punishing the other two players. In general, participants remained nice to the fair play, but took revenge for the injustices committed by the unfair player.

The provocation phase played a decisive role in localizing the feeling of anger in the brain. They were able to identify which areas were related to feelings of anger. The researchers observed the activity of the superior temporal lobe and amygdala when participants looked at the photograph of the unfair player.

These two areas are linked with feelings of anger: the higher the level of anger reported by the participant, the stronger their activity.

Olga clarified, “But the Inequality game allowed us above all to identify the crucial role of the prefrontal dorsolateral cortex (DLPFC), a zone which is a key for the regulation of emotions and which is located at the front of the brain!”

Commonly, participants took revenge on the unfair player. On the other hand, the researchers observed inconsistency in behavior that shows that 11 participants however remained fair to the unfair player. But why is that so? The CISA team observed that the greater the DLPFC activity during the provocation phase, the fewer participants punished the unfair player. On the contrary, low DLPFC activity was linked with a more prominent revenge on the participant following provocation by the unfair player.

CISA said, “We observed that DLPFC is synchronized with the motor cortex that directs the hand that makes the choice of unforgiving behavior or not. There is then a direct association between brain activity in DLPFC, known for emotional regulation, and behavioural choices.”

Olga said that one can then be unsure if a raise in the activity of DLPFC obtained through transmagnetic stimulation, would allow to decrease the acts of revenge or even to suppress them.


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