Politics on the Couch

The Psychology of Leaders and Voters

The Revenge of Bridgegate

How the psychology of revenge scuttled Chris Christie's 2016 presidential hopes


To understand why Chris Christie’s loyal appointees and advisers sacrificed their careers–and probably their boss’s presidential ambitions–by blocking busy roads leading onto the George Washington Bridge last September, it helps to know something about the psychology of revenge

Though sometimes rational, revenge is often reckless and self-defeating, hurting the avenger as much as the target. According to sociologists’ estimates, revenge motivates 10-20% of all homicides,39% of workplace sabotage incidents, 53% of arson crimes, and 61% of school shootings. Road rage drives a much larger number of people to curse discourteous drivers. Seven percent of drivers in one survey said they had been physically threatened in traffic incidents over the course of one year.

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The universality of costly revenge is illustrated in the economic games research of the Swiss economist Ernst Fehr and others. In the two-person Ultimatum Game, for example, a “proposer” is given a sum of money to divide with a “responder.” The proposer offers a specific split that is carried out if the responder accepts. But neither player receives anything if the offer is rejected. Either way, the game ends.

Purely self-interested and rational responders should accept any offer above zero. Something is always better than nothing. And rejecting a small offer has no benefit for deterring future unfair treatment by the proposer, because the game involves only a single interaction between total strangers. 

But in a wide variety of populations and societies, roughly half of all responders reject offers below twenty percent. In one study (conducted in Indonesia, where income levels permitted experimenters to make the stakes very high) responders even gave up 60% of their monthly income to punish greedy proposers. When they reject lopsided offers, responders typically explain that the offer was unfair and that the proposer deserved to get nothing. Anger plays an important role. Neurological investigators have observed increased activity in the areas of responders brain regions that are linked to anger when they receive inequitable offers. Moreover, satisfaction-linked brain regions light up as they decide to reject an offer. Revenge is, in fact,“sweet.”

Although anger and desires for retribution can lead almost anyone into self-defeating behavior, some people are more vengeful than others. People who tend to ruminate, to believe in the principle of “an eye for an eye,” and to be hypersensitive to insults are relatively prone to retaliate after being offended or mistreated. Many years before Bridgegate, but only a few miles down the Hudson River from Fort Lee, Vice-President Aaron Burr ruined his own political career when he shot and killed Alexander Hamilton, in a duel Burr said was necessitated by Hamilton’s denigrating remarks, “the laws of honor,” and the “rules of decorum.”

The Bridgegate plot display all the hallmarks of anger and revenge directed at Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, for refusing to endorse Christie in last year’s gubernatorial race. It was shortly after Sokolich endorsed Christie’s opponent, Barbara Buono, that the Governor’s deputy chief of staff sent her infamous “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” (Incidentally, this official’s first name, Bridget, makes the scandal’s “Bridgegate” moniker particularly apt.)

Characteristic of acts of revenge, Christie’s Port Authority officials clearly took pleasure in punishing the impertinence of a small town mayor they derided as that “little Serbian.” Miring school buses in gridlock was fine because they contained “the children of Buono voters.” One official even commented gleefully on a desperate email from Sokolich, “Is it wrong that I am smiling?” 

The political recklessness of courting scandal for such a petty act is also typical of anger and strong desires for retribution. Exposure was virtually inevitable. A bridge administrator immediately questioned the initial order to close the lanes, warning his Christie-appointed boss that it would cause havoc and “not end well.” The conspirators’ excuse of a non-existent “traffic study,” and the lack of advance notice of the lane closures to other Port Authority officials and local police and officials, was bound to be challenged. To top it off, the emails and text messages about the plan left tracks leading straight to Trenton.

Anger and desires for retribution can undermine anyone’s better judgment. But the “abject stupidity”–as the Governor himself put it–of Christie’s trusted advisers and officials raises real questions about the retributive culture of his administration, and whether it might be replicated in a Christie-occupied White House.

Peter Liberman is a Professor of Political Science at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. more...

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