‘Blunt not the Heart, Enrage It': The Psychology of Revenge and Deterrence



Rose McDermott, Brown University

Date and Time

January 10, 2019 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


William J. Perry Conference Room
Encina Hall, Second Floor, Central, C231
616 Jane Stanford Way, Stanford, CA 94305

Abstract: Revenge may not be a necessary condition for deterrence to operate, but it can certainly prove sufficient in many circumstances.  The psychology of revenge is implicitly embedded into the theory and practice of deterrence; it adds an important source of credibility to the threat of retaliatory strike. This discussion provides a deeper theoretical examination of the psychological nature of revenge, its situational triggers, and the implications for deterrence. This approach distinguishes revenge from other forms of retaliation often conflated with revenge, such as negative reciprocity, and highlights the importance of emotional cues such as anger and hatred as motivators.  This allows for greater clarification in understanding the psychological mechanisms that process information, regulate and trigger emotions, and provides a foundation for policymakers to determine the nature of the adversary they confront. We argue that the human psychology of revenge explains why and when policymakers readily commit to the otherwise seemingly ‘irrational’ retaliation that makes deterrence work. Counterintuitively, however, revenge is not motivated by the rational expectation of future deterrence; rather, it is driven by the intrinsic pleasure that one expects to experience upon striking back.  In other words, exacting revenge for perceived transgressions simply feels incredibly satisfying to most people. It is when revenge is sought for its own sake that its prospect can be such an effective deterrent to adversaries, and why it has evolved as such an effective psychological strategy.


Bio: Rose McDermott is the David and Mariana Fisher University Professor of International Relations at Brown University and a Fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  She received her Ph.D.(Political Science) and M.A. (Experimental Social Psychology) from Stanford University and has taught at Cornell, UCSB  and Harvard. She has held fellowships at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and the Women and Public Policy Program, all at Harvard University. She has been a fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences twice. She is the author of four books, a co-editor of two additional volumes, and author of over two hundred academic articles across a wide variety of disciplines encompassing topics such as experimentation, emotion and decision making, and the biological and genetic bases of political behavior.