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Celebrating a Terrorist's Death – The Psychology & Biology of Revenge

No sooner had word got out about Bin Laden’s assassination than hordes of flag-draped, firework-lighting young and not so young people started congregating across from the Whitehouse and around ‘ground zero” in lower Manhattan. And before long, the crowds grew huge and the cheering and celebrating became almost deafening.

But what was the true cause or reason for this outpouring of good cheer over another’s death? Certainly, Bin Laden was the perfect scapegoat, as his role in the 9/11 attacks was hardly ever in doubt (amongst the general populace)…And certainly also there was this sense that he had gotten away with it all, and might never be “brought to justice” (not the same, in my moral view, as being gunned down). Some of it was perhaps just collective relief — the villain had finally met his doom…

But OBL was more or less just a figure head*, a mouthpiece for Al Qaeda (and its financier), and, as we know, Kalid Sheik Muhammed was the “master mind” of the 9/11 attacks — and he was captured, detained, interrogated, and tortured — not killed.

Was this some mass psychological catharsis? Was it the result of a deep sense that justice had, at long last, been done? Pure primal vengeance? (or was it in fact a show of “solidarity”?)

No doubt there was some sense of satisfaction here. Previous functional MRI studies have shown that watching/contemplating an act of vengeance triggers the brain’s reward center (not unlike the reward response for ingesting an addictive drug, or eating sugar).

Further, a recent fMRI experiment using the Ultimatum Game (UG) to study the “immediate punishment of unfair behaviors in an economic task”, showed that the punishing/rejecting behavior (in response to the unfair behavior) is driven in part by a component of the brain’s limbic system — the amygdala — which indicates a deep (and ancient) emotional tie to the behavior.

 fMRI data related to unfair proposals.
fMRI data related to unfair proposals.

The results of this experiment indicate that the drive to punish “norm violating” behavior is not an entirely conscious decision (believed to be controlled by the left prefrontal lobe), but one programmed long ago into our brains, and which provides significant emotional satisfaction.

Certainly, most ancient holy books and cultural epics are filled with tales of revenge — by both God(s) and people. So, amongst humans, there is a deep, immediate and universal (it seems) rejection of perceived unfairness. And revenge is the natural, behavioral response to it (note: in the above study, males showed a greater amygdala response to unfair treatment than females).

Still, as a naturalist, I have to wonder about the evolutionary (biological) role played by revengeful behaviors, and how these behaviors jibe with the social forces that bind us together in societies.

Psychologists and biologists who study the phenomenon of revenge from an evolutionary point of view will acknowledge that the impulse for taking revenge is pervasive in human societies, but will also add that this impulse is constrained, and has its costs (note: vengeance towards someone outside one’s group is another matter). It is natural to have feelings of revenge, but to act on those feelings unwisely may cost inclusion in the social group (or perpetuate a cycle of revenge, which is costly to the group, etc.).

US propaganda leaflet used in Afghanistan

It’s a double-edge sword kind of situation. If a person is mistreated, for example, by a large number of people, there is an expectation that the person will seek revenge (in fact, the likelihood of revenge increases the more people participate in the mistreatment), otherwise, he/she might be viewed as weak, or willing to put up with mistreatment. But this revenge-seeking within one’s own group must be measured.

In theory, this type of revenge-seeking (and in experiments, the “revenge” here is mostly in the form of diminishing the profit/gain of the mistreating group) results in reformed behavior; the mistreating group no longer mistreats for fear of revenge (or through seeing that gains from this mistreatment were ultimately diminished; even counter-productive). A similar behavior is found amongst some bird and fish species.

Gustave Doré, the Erinyes, deities of vengeance
Engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating the Erinyes, chthonic deities of vengeance and supernatural personifications of the anger of the dead.

So, how does this apply to Bin Laden? The argument could be that in doing this, we change our enemies minds (“reform behavior”) about seeking to harm us. However, the radical Islamists who view us as their arch-enemy also view themselves as being at war with us — and expect, somehow, to die, to achieve martyrdom. It is not clear then how killing our enemy is going to make them change what they are doing, or planning to do, to us.

But we live in a different world now than the one in which our brains’ reward circuits originally evolved. Back in Paleolithic times of fewer people and smaller groups, this type of revenge behavior may have worked quite well in deterring mistreatment of one group by another, or members of a group against another member.

It may be simply that the 9/11 attacks — clearly acts of war — were deeply felt as unfair attacks (being as they were by stealth, treachery, and against civilians) and so triggered that old emotional satisfaction “circuit” in our brains — the final (and long-delayed) expression of which was finally unleashed earlier this week.

* UPDATE (May 7, 2011) A preliminary analysis (reported on the Yahoo News site) suggest that OBL played a more involved role in planning post 9/11 attacks that was previously assumed, although Al Qaeda is still considered a non-centralized network of autonomous terror cells, so, to what extent these plans were “ordered” and carried out by other cells (in situ) is not clear at this point.

Some source material for this post came from the Sci Am article: Does Revenge Serve an Evolutionary Purpose? by Katherine Harmon

Brain Scan Images: PLoS Biology paper Limbic Justice—Amygdala Involvement in Immediate Rejection in the Ultimatum Game, Gospic et al, May, 2011.

  1. Barbra Partridge

    All psycho-speak acknowledged….the fact remains Bin Laden will no longer plan diabolical schemes, with or without aid, against the U.S. or any other of his so-called enemies of Islam….and that my friends is A GOOD THING.

    1. Michael R.


      thanks for reading/commenting.

      Yes, true, but someone else will, without doubt. IMO, this is mostly a political victory for the admin. (although a cache of computer drives was recovered at the scene, which may help stop future plans)…regardless, this act of revenge will not stop all future attacks against us/our allies.

      What fails to get mentioned in most of this talk is that the rationale for the initial attack on us –far from hatred of our freedoms — was American/Western imperialism…our “freedom of action” in the Middle East (including military presence in the Holy Land)…

      Cultural/economic/military dominance and intrusion (whether we see it as “normal”, “good” or “our right as a super power”) is the basis for much of the developing world’s resentment towards us. There is a price to pay for being dominant on the world stage…

      We are simply the major player in a huge global cycle of revenge.

      The current wave of revolutions and (generally) peaceful peoples protests throughout the Islamic world is happening in spite of our intentions, not because of them. Many political observers assert that these pro-democracy revolutions are counter to American interests, or could turn out to be (they tend to “destabilize” a country), because our interests in the Middle East are not human rights, dignity and justice (what the people want), but unfettered access to oil (which can be threatened by any revolution).

      The big picture, friends, the big picture.

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