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 manyslights that befall us, but we're ever reluctant to bury our pain and move on. Like an illicit affair, our beloved grudgesusually end up creating misery for all involved.The tendency to itemize every unfair knock we've ever suffered is known as injustice collecting. Sometimes theinjustices are personal, as in, "My boss unfairly promoted Rick over me." This kind of self-talk leads to anger. Atother times, the catalogued outrages lead to overwrought generalizations, such as, "Nothing ever goes well; this istoo 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 atrigger-happy perceiver. If you walk down the street recounting the affronts you've suffered lately, you'll kick up quitea cloud of dejection.Injustice collecting springs from a sensible motive: the monitoring of fairness as a form of self-protection, animpulse 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 environmentdidn't exactly provide job descriptions for each member of a group—we were in a voluntary collective. (Indeed, it'sthe 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. Evolutionarypsychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides argue that we are so attuned to freeloaders, we actually have aspecific 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 whoundercontributes but still receives compensation or kudos. If I catch my brother-in-law drawing cackles by parrotingmy 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, andcarcasses. It therefore behooves us to be hypervigilant in separating the free rider or cheater from someone whodeserves the benefit of the doubt. That's why injustice collecting errs on the side of suspicion: Natural selectionfavors the less costly error, and in the ancestral environment it was likely better to rebuff a well-intentioned personthan 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 theplayground for our development of moral principles. Gossip about who shared, who didn't and who deserved whatportion may have helped birth the concept of fairness in the wake of complex distribution systems. As everyschoolchild knows, people's shares can differ greatly. In a meritocracy, those who work harder gain more; in anoligarchy, it's those of higher status; and in a charity, those with the most needs receive preferential treatment. Thekey is that the distribution system be socially sanctioned. We maintain these ideas of "fairness" today.Marc D. Hauser of Harvard notes in his book
that we do not get angry at pop stars or sports figureswho earn millions more than the average person. But we get enraged when we "smell a rat"—someone scammingundeserved 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 massscale—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'sdevelopment, and many are willing to die for their version of justice. (From an evolutionary perspective, suicide isobviously quite costly, but there is a payoff at the level of the group and the level of the gene.)