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Injustice Collecting

You can't let go of a grudge, says Nando Pelusi, Ph.D., because there are deep-seated emotional payoffs.

We have a complicated relationship with the grudges we hold. We get obsessed and aggravated by the many slights that befall us, but we're ever reluctant to bury our pain and move on. Like an illicit affair, our beloved grudges usually end up creating misery for all involved.

The tendency to itemize every unfair knock we've ever suffered is known as injustice collecting. Sometimes the injustices are personal, as in, "My boss unfairly promoted Rick over me." This kind of self-talk leads to anger. At other times, the catalogued outrages lead to overwrought generalizations, such as, "Nothing ever goes well; this is too unfair." This type of thinking leads to hopelessness and rage.

Enough grudge holding and soon you'll see more iniquity than actually exists. The injustice collector becomes a trigger-happy perceiver. If you walk down the street recounting the affronts you've suffered lately, you'll kick up quite a cloud of dejection.

Injustice collecting springs from a sensible motive: the monitoring of fairness as a form of self-protection, an impulse that evolved among social creatures who depended on one another. Nursing grudges may have raised our odds of survival and reproduction, however unconsciously.

Grudge holding evolved in part as a means of monitoring the able-bodied freeloader. Our ancestral environment didn't exactly provide job descriptions for each member of a group—we were in a voluntary collective. (Indeed, it's the freeloader who makes enforced collective systems like communism unworkable.)

The freeloader, also known as the free rider, is someone who doesn't pull his weight in the group. Evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides argue that we are so attuned to freeloaders, we actually have a specific cheater-detecting ability, designed to spot people who renege on a social contract. The complex logic of quid pro quo comes easily to us. We are incensed by so-called slackers, welfare queens, anyone who undercontributes but still receives compensation or kudos. If I catch my brother-in-law drawing cackles by parroting my own wry observation, or my coworker padding her expense reports, I get irate.

Remember, we're the descendants of humans who needed their fair share of resources, rewards, credit, and carcasses. It therefore behooves us to be hypervigilant in separating the free rider or cheater from someone who deserves the benefit of the doubt. That's why injustice collecting errs on the side of suspicion: Natural selection favors the less costly error, and in the ancestral environment it was likely better to rebuff a well-intentioned person than to trust someone who might swindle us out of home and hut.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that in our hunter-gatherer past, the dictates of food sharing provided the playground for our development of moral principles. Gossip about who shared, who didn't and who deserved what portion may have helped birth the concept of fairness in the wake of complex distribution systems. As every schoolchild knows, people's shares can differ greatly. In a meritocracy, those who work harder gain more; in an oligarchy, it's those of higher status; and in a charity, those with the most needs receive preferential treatment. The key is that the distribution system be socially sanctioned. We maintain these ideas of "fairness" today.

Marc D. Hauser of Harvard notes in his book Moral Minds that we do not get angry at pop stars or sports figures who earn millions more than the average person. But we get enraged when we "smell a rat"—someone scamming undeserved loot, such as the late Kenneth Lay of Enron.

But injustice collecting is about more than just resentment toward cheaters; just as often, it's resentment on a mass scale—about anger at the very order of the universe. If a tree falls on a school bus or an earthquake levels our home, we're stricken by the absolute injustice of it all. Islamist radicals, for example, resent the West's development, and many are willing to die for their version of justice. (From an evolutionary perspective, suicide is obviously quite costly, but there is a payoff at the level of the group and the level of the gene.)

Self-pity plus religious outrage—a combination that fuels suicide bombers—might also be a cognitive virus, replicating itself because humans are so easily attuned to believing in absolute justice.

Fairness is a desirable abstraction, and one we'd better reach for, but it is not a concrete measurement, however much we might wish the courts, God, or the Constitution to decree it.

We bang our heads against the wall when confronted with an "injustice" we cannot change, such as our boss' orders, our big sister's late-night privileges, or a beloved friend's illness. We believe the universe should give us a fair shake. We cling to this belief because there are emotional payoffs.

Injustice collecting allows us to avoid responsibility for our circumstances. Self-pity keeps us from letting go of unchangeable wounds, and garners attention and sympathy from others. We are often loath to give up that sort of advantage. How to get free from the absolute fairness crusade? Work to discard the imperative that life be thoroughly fair.

Famed attorney Clarence Darrow noted, "There's no such thing as justice—in or out of court." Maybe Darrow was too cynical. You can balance the scales by itemizing the good fortune in your life. An understanding that we're lucky to be here in the first place can reset the tilt caused by chronic comparing. Comparing one's lot to another's represents an error that economists call interpersonal comparison of utility. It is the erroneous belief that everyone experiences something in the same way. You might think it's OK to spend $4 on a latte, while I'd rather buy a gallon of cheap wine. It's not fair that only a few can own a Lamborghini—a great car to drive until you're stuck in traffic burning up expensive gas and overheating as you catch a scooter whizzing by.

Inequities are bound to occur; it is how we react to the perceived injustice that is key. "Natural" emotions such as the anger engendered by cheaters evolved for all sorts of reasons, but they aren't perfect and they don't necessarily improve our lives. So resist the all-too-natural tendency to nurse a grudge.

How to give up the grudge and get going.

  • Itemize injustices. List the issues that weigh on you. Divide the list into things you can change and things you cannot yet change. This will help you focus productively.
  • It's not all or nothing. "Does this injustice have to affect all areas of my life every second?" The answer better be, "Definitely not." Nor is unfairness in all ways a disadvantage—unless you define it as such.
  • Make a choice. "Can I still work to build a meaningful life in spite of this unfairness and disadvantage?" If you have trouble saying yes, realize you are making a choice—by refusing to get over something you cannot change.
  • Question your anger. If you find yourself grieving excessively about an injustice, stop yourself and ask, "Will the situation change by my being upset?"
  • Mind your language. Instead of saying, "This is unfair," say, "This is annoying." It is what it is. This verbal shift will help you keep perspective.
  • Work on self-direction. Tune into how you want to act in certain circumstances—in spite of unfairness.
  • It's always relative. Ask yourself, "How much will this particular injustice matter in the grand scheme of life?"