Why people are spiteful and seek revenge

Game theory is a branch of mathematics that computes the results of different behaviours and populations to gain insight into why organisms act in a certain way. They also look at reality and induce that certain behaviours have a usefulness that is not obvious on the surface.They try to understand what those benefits may be. This post is about the insights of game theory into why people are spiteful and seek revenge.

I don’t think people are spiteful or seek revenge because it is an inherently pleasurable thing to do. I think most people do not want to inflict pain on others, except in retaliation.

Imagine the following scenario: You steal your sibling’s toy. Now you get to play with it, giving you joy. Your sibling feels the pain of loss, but instantly forgives you and acts with the utmost kindness, respect and consideration whether you continue to hurt them or not. You get what you want, your sibling doesn’t and that is how it continues.

The previous scenario sounds unrealistic because it is. What would certainly happen is that your sibling will be mean to you by taking your toys, hitting you, or other ways to inflict pain. So quickly you learn that if you cause pain for your sibling, you will be punished and feel pain in return.

Spite is when someone feels hurt and seeks to punish the offender to prevent them from being hurt again. Sometimes the person who caused the hurt did it accidentally. Then when they feel hurt by the person’s spite they retaliate. Very easily a small misunderstanding causes a standing feud.

What can also happen is that the person hurt still seeks to punish the offender, but the offender is of the opinion that sufficient punishment has been received. Feeling that someone is punishing you too much hurts you and then you retaliate. Revenge is just a large-scale version of the same. And when someone confuses the offender with someone else, then you get the classic case of a mean person

The interesting part is where to punish someone you hurt yourself more than you hurt the other person. It seems stupid, but many people do it. The theory is that if you know with certainty that you will be punished for wrongdoing, you will not hurt people. So it makes sense for people to punish someone even if the punishment is painful for them, in the hope that it will prevent further abuse. This all happens unconsciously for most people, so when you subconscious makes a mistake in assuming malicious intent or punishing the wrong people you can really end up with relationship problems.

This all happens unconsciously for most people, so when you subconscious makes a mistake in assuming malicious intent or punishing the wrong people you can really end up with relationship problems.

Your intent is important. If you deliberately try to hurt someone or do something that will obviously hurt them, punishment can stop you from continuing the behaviour. But if you are unaware of the damage you cause, or your actions stem from good intent, punishment is usually ineffective, especially if you do not communicate to the person what they did wrong. In this modern world with many differing social customs and rules of etiquette, it becomes more and more important for people to communicate explicitly what they demand of other people in their interactions. Having a culture that aligns with those around you makes it a lot easier since every single rule or expectation has to be communicated constantly.

Assume that people have good intent, or you soon end up with the worst.

To happiness, and beyond!



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