Pura Vida

Life in full circle

Chris Christie and the Biology of Payback

The NJ Governor is a poster child for payback.

News travels fast in the world of politics, especially when it comes to potential presidential contenders. So I won’t summarize the current flap over New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his—what shall we call it?—“Bridge-gate.” Suffice it to say that even though Mr. Christie claims that he wasn’t personally involved in punishing the people of Fort Lee, New Jersey, by artificially creating a massive traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, it was done, and at the very least by members of the governor’s staff, and for reasons that most people—unfortunately—can readily imagine, even if they are unlikely to approve.

“I am who I am,” said Mr. Christie, at his recent news conference. “But I am not a bully.” Bully or not, most of us recognize that—contrary to the governor’s claim—neither was he a victim. (The people of Fort Lee were.) Moreover, Gov. Christie—or members of his staff—were acting upon an impulse as deep and widespread as it is generally reviled: payback.

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In our book by that same title, Judith Eve Lipton and I investigated not only the psychology (and sociology, politics, anthropology, history, theology, ethology, even literary examples) of retribution, but also its deep biological roots, suggesting that among the under-appreciated drivers of human misery there lurks the three Rs of payback: retaliation, redirected aggression and revenge.

Its underlying physiological mechanism has only recently been uncovered. In short, it goes like this. Victimization carries with it (in addition to its literal burden of pain and immediate loss), a syndrome known as “subordination stress,” which produces heightened blood pressure, reduced sex steroids, adrenal hyper-stimulation and, if continued long enough, ulcers. Once someone has been victimized, whether physically or emotionally, the resulting pain generates a potent physiological and thus psychological inclination to respond in kind. Why? Because doing so—literally, passing the pain along—acts therapeutically upon the initial victim, greatly reducing his or her unpleasant symptoms…but at the cost of passing said pain to someone else. (As neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky pointed out, think of the guy of whom it is said “He doesn’t get ulcers; he gives them!”)

In Gov. Christie’s case, strange as it may seem, the process would have begun when the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee had the temerity of refusing to endorse Mr. Christie in his recent—and successful—re-election campaign. Having been thus victimized, the governor (or, as he claims, his aides) proceeded to pass along the pain.

In most cases of payback, the person targeted by the initial victim may receive his comeuppance immediately (in which case it is retaliation), or after a delay and typically with heightened intensity (revenge), or—in one of its most bizarre formulations—an innocent bystander may be on the receiving end (redirected aggression).

From a strictly evolutionary perspective, there is adaptive significance to the first two “Rs,” even as they are both ethically questionable, even deplorable. Thus, a reputation for effective retaliation may well reduce the likelihood that a victim will be similarly targeted in the future. Ditto for revenge. The third of these “Rs,” redirected aggression, seems the most illogical of the three, and yet, even here natural selection may well have been operating similarly, insofar as when a victim proceeds to take it out on someone else—even someone altogether innocent—she may well be sending a social message: “Maybe I was victimized once, but don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not a patsy.”

Back now to Gov. Christie. Few consider him a patsy. Despite his protestations, many are liable to see him as in fact a bully—both before and especially after Bridge-gate. It stretches credulity to imagine that Mr. Christie’s staff would have acted alone in retaliating or exacting revenge (one can see Bridge-gate either way) against the mayor of Fort Lee. After all, Mr. Christie has a history of what The New York Times called “vindictive behavior,” including a Rutgers University professor being denied financing for a research project after he had voted against Mr. Christie on a redistricting commission, and a Republican colleague being disinvited to an event in his own district after he had a disagreement with the governor.

Politicians in particular are likely to be well versed in the arcana of payback, even exceeding the notorious intensity of Mafiosi godfathers, albeit (I’d like to think), with less lethality. Thus, one reason Lyndon Johnson was so effective both as Senate majority leader and as president is that he cultivated a reputation for remembering who supported and who crossed him, and for making the latter pay. Moreover, one complaint that progressive activists (full disclosure: such as myself) have about President Obama is that he has been insufficiently forceful in “knocking heads,” failing to make clear to legislators who obstruct his agenda that they will pay a political price for doing so.

In any event, and whether bully or not, there seems little doubt that Gov. Christie is personally and well as politically familiar with the precepts of payback (even if he knows nothing about its evolution, its physiological mechanism or its diverse social manifestations). And there is no doubt that the residents of Fort Lee, NJ were innocent, drive-by victims, whereas Mr. Christie’s presidential ambition may or may not have suffered similarly...although if so, the cost would have been warranted, albeit not intended.

Finally, I’m struck by the fact that the world’s ethical and religious systems have long struggled with the question of payback, and how to deal with it’s often regrettable consequences. My own exploration of the three Rs helped me appreciate our species-wide need to understand the roots of human aggression and violence—not just intellectually, but also at the level of action—and to examine the various mechanisms available for transcending selfishness and expanding empathy and compassion. And I believe that I have found it, in the convergence of Buddhism with biology. But that’s another story, which I have been expounding—in bits and pieces—right here in Psychology Today.

[This column - with slight variations - originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review, and is re-posted here by permission.]

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time aspiring Buddhist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science, just published by Oxford University Press.

 

 

David P. Barash, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

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