It’s so simple really, the problem of violence: Hurt people hurt people. The motivation is revenge, not because human beings are fundamentally evil, but because vengeance is part of the innate survival mechanics of a complex social species. The desire for vengeance is as old – or older – than humankind and to understand this complex and ancient response, we need to push aside our socially developed notions of revenge and look for its roots. Reciprocity, or “tit-for-tat” is the basis of social relationships, manifesting even among our primate ancestors. Behavior that sabotages cooperation, so necessary for survival, will be punished. Chimpanzees experience retaliatory outrage for cheating behavior among their peers and will exact punishment. A similar retaliatory outrage can be traced throughout human history, but we call it a “thirst for vengeance.” The desire for revenge is an evolved outgrowth of our human sense of unsatisfied reciprocity, what today we consider a desire for justice. But notions of justice can be twisted and tortured to fit the needs of the moment and the demands of the social system. So too, can justice be twisted to address the internal economy of the individual.
If we hope to understand why people act out violently towards themselves and others, we need to examine the roots of violence in childhood. In the course of normal development, children learn how to modulate and manage the desire to “get even” for hurts to their bodies, their sense of identity, and their cherished beliefs. Psychobiologic inhibitory responses to anger develop in the context of an empathic relationship with caretakers. In interaction with family members and peers, children learn the rules of fair play, the role of apology, and how to cooperate with others. Even so, studies of normal populations tell us the urge to retaliate for wrongs lingers through adulthood. Not only physical or sexual assault, but also emotional abuse provokes retaliatory behavior unless a sufficient number of mitigating factors impact on the desire and action of seeking revenge. Whether in interpersonal relationships or the workplace, human beings retaliate for perceived injustice if they continue to be treated poorly, if there is no apology for misconduct, and if they feel morally justified in their outrage.
It is not difficult then to understand how things could go very wrong, how people who are very badly treated by others, especially when that bad treatment originates in childhood, could become excessively violent. The brain is a delicate organ, and any damage to the brain can also damage the development of normal inhibitory pathways in caretaker relationships. If children’s attachment relationships are disrupted, as is the case with exposure to trauma, abuse and neglect, they will fail to develop normal biological and psychological mechanisms that inhibit retaliatory behavior. If they come from violent and abusive homes, children learn to be violent, learn that violence is a viable and effective means of solving problems. Because abusive adults were often exposed to abuse and/or neglect as children, an important way of viewing the intergenerational cycle of abuse is through the lens of displaced revenge.
In clinical populations and in literature we can see many examples of the deep connection between shame, grief, and the desire for vengeance. People prone to experience overwhelming shame in response to disrespect are most likely to become angry, violent and retaliatory when shamed and may direct their anger at the person who has hurt them, at innocent others, or at themselves. Under the guise of a quest for justice, an ongoing desire for revenge may also serve as a defense against completing the tasks of mourning and thus impede therapeutic progress and improvement in life adjustment.
However complex the mechanism, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that many abused children will grow up to wreck vengeance on...