Revenge is sweet and not fattening. –Alfred Hitchcock

Whistleblowing legislation has focused and promoted itself around protecting a whistleblower from retaliation.  However, the word protect is a misnomer. The etymology of the word Protect arises from Latin, to ‘cover something upfront’.  Think about the word prophylactic and you’ll get it!

The meaning and intention of covering something (a whistleblower) upfront is in stark contrast to what Whistleblowing laws actually do. Most whistleblowing legislation allows a whistleblower to seek redress after suffering retaliation and only if they are able to prove causation between their whistleblowing and the retaliation.  As a result there are many organisations whose goal it is to disconnect the act of whistleblowing from the act of retaliation, which is why so much of the legislation to protect whistleblowers is practically irrelevant.

I believe that policies, laws and processes need to be more aligned with our natural inbuilt responses to our world. In that belief my blogs dig beneath superficial layers to uncover and explore human and neural sciences in order for us to obtain the self knowledge to do better.

This blog intends to dig into the psychological and neural triggers that invoke retaliatory actions.

Ever had a parking spot stolen, received a rude email or needed to engage with a pugnacious person? These provocations of daily life often trigger feelings of anger and aggression and help to explain why people lash out.

Conventionally, scientific explanations of violence have focused on how negative feelings like anger precede aggressive responses to provocation (Berkowitz, 1989 Anderson and Bushman, 2002). Yet everyday experience and budding scientific literature suggest that revenge is sweet and retaliatory aggression may be driven by hedonic reward. Indeed, research by David S. Chester and C. Nathan DeWall from the Department of Psychology, University of Kentucky, has shown that provocation tips our neural balance towards hedonic reward, which fosters retaliatory aggression.

Watch this twenty second video where Axelrod from the series Billions smugly retaliates against his team

But wait, there’s hopeful news – although such pleasure of inflicting pain may promote retaliatory aggression, self-regulatory processes can keep such aggressive urges at bay.

The damage done by human aggression is well known, yet what motivates this behaviour is less understood. Perhaps the best known causes of aggression are provocation and the negative feelings that result from it. However, provocation appears to render retaliatory aggression as a rewarding experience. 

You may be asking what some of the reasons are for retaliation against a whistleblower and why a perception of provocation even exists in this context.  I’ll leave that for another blog. In this blog I want to focus on our inbuilt neural responses to provocation to identify the  solutions that lie primarily within the social and neural sciences, with the law as a secondary, reactive measure.

Sigmund Freud ignited the notion of catharsis, believing it as a form of ‘releasing’ anger through aggressive acts. The concept of cathartic aggression has thrived into modernity, as violent outbursts are commonly perceived as a viable means to replace negative affect (aggression, anger) with positive affect (release, catharsis).

The Neuroscience of Retaliation
Neuroimaging evidence has corroborated the behavioural findings that retaliation is hedonically rewarding.  After a provocation, for instance, finding out you’re under investigation, being gossiped about or discovering that no one’s replaced the toilet roll, participants in experimental research showed both greater aggression and greater left-hemispheric frontal asymmetry, an indicator of the activation of the behavioural approach system (BAS; Harmon-Jones and Sigelman, 2001). BAS activation is reliably linked to the hedonic experience of positive affect.

Let’s break down the significant brain areas that invoke these behavioural responses

The NAcc: This part of our brain, called the nucleus accumbens, is a region that is best described as ‘a servant to many masters’. Despite sharing no direct, anatomical connection, the NAcc exists in a regulatory equilibrium with the ventral aspect of the lateral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC).

The VLPFC: This is the ventral aspect of the lateral prefrontal cortex which has functional connectivity with the NAcc, and serves to inhibit and regulate impulses, such as aggression, it generates.

If greater NAcc activity promotes aggression, then the inhibition of this region should also predict inhibited aggression. Indeed, the researchers demonstrated that the more that participants’ left NAcc showed functional connectivity with the right VLPFC during aggressive decisions, the less retaliatory aggression they perpetrated.

However when aggressive impulses over-ride self-regulation, aggression expresses itself as a self-regulatory failure.  Remember that the NAcc is a ‘servant to many masters, not only to the regulatory VLPFC.  Aggression is fostered in the brain by an imbalance that favours the master that is the reward-based processing of the NAcc and disadvantages the regulatory functions of the VLPFC.

During the research the NAcc activity observed during retaliatory aggression was due to the reward of aggression itself, or the outcome of seeing the provocateur punished for their incendiary acts. Previous research linking the act of simply observing the punishment of provocateurs has also shown NAcc reactivity (Singer et al., 2006; Kra¨mer et al., 2007).

The danger is that if retaliatory aggression is motivated by the reward-based elements of the NAcc then there is the possibility of a Pavlovian neural circuit being created, similar to an addiction, with its role of cravings and anticipated rewards. Perhaps this is the unseen, neural journey of how a bully is born.

An additional part of our brains, the anterior insula (AI) plays a part in activating empathetic responses.  Within the context of this blog, could empathy help mitigate retaliatory aggression? According to research by Mina Cikara from MIT and Susan T. Fiske from Princeton University, the answer depends on whether the person or people being retaliated against are part of an in or out-group. A decrease in activity in the AI, leading to less empathy, is observed if a member of an out-group is being retaliated against.  This in turn leads to an alarming physical outcome; in this research, people smiled more when a member of an out-group was shown to have suffered retaliation.

Depending on the target, people may feel not only less empathy, but may also feel increased pleasure—Schadenfreude, in response to retaliation to out-group members. In one innocuous example, participants in experimental research smiled more when an out-group member, compared to an in-group target, experienced sitting on gum on a park bench.

In summary, the wiring of our brains may trigger the reward response to retaliatory aggression.

I’ve written about this in earlier blogs:
Are Whistleblowers Saints or Sinners; are Felons Villains or Victims?
We all have one and size doesn’t matter: Our brains hold the seat of Courage

The Evolutionary Reason

Behavioural literature shows very clearly that aggression is only rated as pleasant when it occurs after a provocation (Carre´ et al., 2010). The researchers considered that this specificity of reward’s association with retaliatory aggression is likely due to evolutionary forces that selected for a motivational system that spurred individuals towards inflicting reciprocal costs on those who reduced their reproductive fitness. Implicating the motivation to maintain justice, the positive affect associated with ‘righting a wrong’ appears to motivate aggressive behaviour.

Ancient retributive motivations and more modern desires for equity may underpin the specificity of reward in motivating retaliatory aggression. However, the ability of self-regulation to undermine the effect of reward on aggression offers hope for reducing retaliation.

We have work to do!

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With my warmest regards