Humans have an instinct for comeuppance. It’s in the striatum, the part of the brain that processes rewards. So, getting revenge or giving punishment is strongly associated with personal reward. No wonder we relish it so. It is a delicious delight for us to see a selfish scoundrel being caught and made to pay. We chortle. We wriggle with glee. Our striata are on the job.
Experiments reveal that the intensity of the emotions we feel when someone gets their comeuppance is directly related to the amount of activity in the brain’s reward center. The higher the activity, the more intense the reward we experience and the more earnestly we’re willing to apply revenge and punishment. Now that’s a strong instinct.
The question arises, what evolutionary advantage do we gain from the ability to spot scoundrels and the urge to punish them? Such a specific trait as the comeuppance instinct probably wouldn’t have become so strong if it didn’t benefit us in some way. Since it’s a social instinct, having to do with our interactions with other humans in social situations, and not one of the more personal instincts like survival or procreation, it most likely exists to serve our social well-being. Selfish cads can be harmful to the community. Catching and punishing them can be good for the clan. Humans are social animals, dependent on their clans, so personal success is strongly tied to group success. This could be one reason why the comeuppance instinct is so widespread.
It might also explain why public punishments like the stocks or the gallows draw such crowds.
Not only can the brain make us feel good by giving us psychological rewards, it can also ease our pain without the benefit of medication. This so-called placebo effect has been known for a long time. It has been hailed as the power of mind over matter and scorned as superstitious mumbo-jumbo.
Experiments have demonstrated that the placebo effect is real. Subjects who were treated with an inert but supposedly potent pain killing cream before receiving painful but harmless electric shocks reported experiencing less pain than did control subjects. Brain scans showed that the placebo-receiving subjects had decreased activity in the pain processing regions of their brains. The placebo effect doesn’t decrease the body’s ability to sense pain, but it does affect how the brain treats it.
In an amusing twist, people are now exploring ways to emulate the placebo effect with drugs. One big drawback is that test subjects who receive the placebo in clinical trials are reporting not only the expected effects of the drug, but also its possible side-effects. Test subjects have had to withdraw from trials because of the severity of the side-effects of the placebo they were given.
Comeuppance and placebos – two ways our reality is mediated by our minds.