Most of the people I consider “normal”–assuming there is such a thing–view America’s current dysfunctions with incomprehension. A phrase I hear more and more frequently from all sides of the political aisle is “what on earth is wrong with those people?”
Two articles from Politico suggest an answer.
The first is a collection of “explanations of the election” by twenty voters who display the various attitudes we’ve come to expect from an assortment of geographically and philosophically diverse Americans. (Hint: It’s the other guy’s fault…)
The second was a really fascinating article by James Kimmel, Jr., a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, and a co-director of the Yale Collaborative for Motive Control Studies. Evidently, people can become addicted to grievance in much the same way they can be addicted to drugs.
And as the collected opinions of those twenty Americans demonstrates, there’s a lot of grievance around.
Kimmel’s studies show that a brain on grievance looks a lot like a brain on drugs.
In fact, brain imaging studies show that harboring a grievance (a perceived wrong or injustice, real or imagined) activates the same neural reward circuitry as narcotics
This isn’t a metaphor; it’s brain biology. Scientists have found that in substance addiction, environmental cues such as being in a place where drugs are taken or meeting another person who takes drugs cause sharp surges of dopamine in crucial reward and habit regions of the brain, specifically, the nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum. This triggers cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through intoxication. Recent studies show that similarly, cues such as experiencing or being reminded of a perceived wrong or injustice — a grievance — activate these same reward and habit regions of the brain, triggering cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through retaliation. To be clear, the retaliation doesn’t need to be physically violent—an unkind word, or tweet, can also be very gratifying.
Evidently, people can become addicted to seeking retribution against those they consider their enemies. Kimmel has a name for it: revenge addiction, and he suggests this may explain why some people just can’t “get over it” long after others feel they should have moved on. (He also warns that some of those people may resort to violence.)
The hallmark of addiction is compulsive behavior despite harmful consequences. Trump’s unrelenting efforts to retaliate against those he believes have treated him unjustly (including, now, American voters) appear to be compulsive and uncontrollable.
Unfortunately, this addiction to revenge doesn’t only affect Trump.
Like substance addiction, revenge addiction appears to spread from person to person. For instance, inner-city gun violence spreads in neighborhoods like a social contagion, with one person’s grievances infecting others with a desire to seek vengeance. Because of his unique position and use of the media and social networks, Trump is able to spread his grievances to thousands or millions of others through Twitter, TV and rallies. His demand for retribution becomes their demand, causing his supporters to crave retaliation—and, in a vicious cycle, this in turn causes Trump’s targets and their supporters to feel aggrieved and want to retaliate, too.
If a revenge addiction is as contagious as Kimmel believes, what can we do about it? Kimmel warns that addiction interventions are risky and that they often backfire.
Unfortunately, Kimmel doesn’t have any quick fixes to offer; he says we’re in for a long haul. Worse, neither Trump nor those he’s “infected” are likely to heal until we (and he) realize how the politics of grievance is damaging us.
Several commenters to this blog–not to mention pundits and academics, among others– have worried about the weaponizing of grievance by political parties and interest groups who recognize that playing on our fears and anger generates donations and motivates voters. Similarly, media outlets and social networks use grievance to attract clicks and increase sales. In a very real sense, they’ve become dealers.
We need to turn down the heat.
I still remember those old (ineffective) anti-drug TV ads that showed a hand breaking an egg into a hot frying pan, and a voice-over intoning: This is your brain on drugs!
Can we avoid frying that egg by turning off the burner beneath it? As Trump departs, can we “turn off” some of the incivility and nastiness he promoted–the rhetoric that generates grievance?
Maybe “political correctness” isn’t such a bad thing….