Peace and Violence in Animals and Humans

In Payback: Why We Retaliate, Redirect Aggression and Take Revenge, authors Barash and Lipton, explore the role of violence in both human and animal societies.  Barash is a professor of psychology and an evolutionary biologist.  Lipton is a psychiatrist who has specialized in the biology of human behaviour.

One thing is clear from reading Payback:  both animals and humans do all three of what the authors call the three R’s: Retaliation, Redirected Aggression and Revenge.  Or, at least, humans do all three.  Animals clearly do retaliate and exhibit redirected aggression.  It’s less clear whether they take revenge.    For humans it is clear that both justice (that is the perpetrator being found guilty and punished) and redirected aggression:

 “re-establish the social status of, as well as the internal balance of, an offended party, diminishing the initial victim’s stress by subordinating someone else.  This may help explain why so many crime victims respond to exculpatory evidence with outrage rather than gratitude that an innocent person has been spared.  It also illuminates why forgiveness is so difficult, despite the ardent recommendations of the world’s greatest ethical and religious leaders.” (p. 19 Barash and Lipton)

Barash and Lipton then go on to site many examples of animals exhibiting retaliation and re-directed aggression. 

 So humans come by their tendency to retaliate, redirect aggression and take revenge from their, that is, our, animal antecedents.  So, to what can we attribute the fact that we mostly control these three tendencies?  I suggest that it is our ability to reason that helps us with this.  Because of our ability to imagine the impact of different behaviours, we have learned to control our initial impulse to retaliate, redirect our aggression or take revenge.  We understand that the three R’s as the authors dub them, can lead to negative consequences that in the long run are worse than acting in a more peaceful, controlled manner. 

And yet, we are hard wired to retaliate, redirect our aggression or take revenge.  That is why there is human on human violence in the world. 

So is the glass half full or half empty?  Should we be pleased that we humans are less violent than we might be, or should we be saddened that we have not used our reasoning ability and our ability to imagine the future more effectively to eliminate all violence? 

 Either way it is interesting to also look at ways that we humans have found to avoid violence.

In their last chapter, titled “Overcoming” the authors briefly describe eleven tools that we humans have invented to overcome our tendency to “pass pain on”. 

 Here’s their list:

 Tool 1: Calls on the person who has been hurt to forgive.  (The Jewish Bedtime Shema)

Tool 2::Love your enemies, refrain from retaliation, don’t pass the pain on.  Forgive. (The Christian Sermon on the Plain)

Tool 3: The Twelve Steps (The Way of AA)

Tool 4 Ghandian Nonviolence

Tool 5: Buddhist Vows

Tool 6: Breathing Meditation

Tool 7a: Original Tit for Tat (The Game Theorist’s Way)

Tool 7b: Generous Tit for Tat

Tool 8: Passing Gain Along (The Economist’s Way)

Tool 9: Psychiatric Responses

Tool 10: Self Protection (Get out of abusive or corrupt relationships)

Tool 11: Forgiveness Protocol

 Finally, the authors offer a Principle for Minimizing Pain

 Here’s their shorter version:

 “When evaluating alternative actions, I will ask myself whether each is likely to increase or decrease the total amount of pain in the world, and I will always choose the latter.” (Page 199 Barash and Lipton).

In order to explore this topic further, I’ve decided to do a full article on each of these tools as I find more material on each.  This topic and these tools have captured my attention!!

If anyone wishes to provide input please feel free to do so.  I’ll be most grateful!!

Reference for this article is:

Payback: Why we Retaliate, Redirect Aggression and Take Revenge, David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton, Oxford University Press, 2011. 






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