On Being with Krista Tippett

Michael McCullough

Getting Revenge and Forgiveness

Last Updated

May 24, 2012

Original Air Date

November 6, 2008

Michael McCullough describes science that helps us comprehend how revenge came to have a purpose in human life. At the same time, he stresses, science is also revealing that human beings are more instinctively equipped for forgiveness than we’ve perhaps given ourselves credit for. Knowing this suggests ways to calm the revenge instinct in ourselves and others and embolden the forgiveness intuition.

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Image of Michael McCullough

Michael McCullough is professor of psychology at the University of Miami, where he directs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory. He's the author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.


May 24, 2012

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I was hooked by the first line of Beyond Revenge — a book by the research psychologist Michael McCullough. What he’s learning, he said, is “for people who want to bypass all of the pious-sounding statements about the power of forgiveness, and all of the fruitless sermonizing about the destructiveness of revenge.” Both revenge and forgiveness, he says, have their purpose in human biology and history. But from neighborhood arguments to civil wars, Michael McCullough’s science is showing how we can make forgiveness more possible and appealing.

MICHAEL MCCULLOUGH: Some of the baggage is that it’s a namby-pamby thing that doormats do, but from everything I’ve manage to read and see and understand, forgiveness is a brawny muscular exercise that I kind of imagine someone with a great passion for life and a great hardy sort of disposition being able to take on.

MS. TIPPETT: “Getting Revenge and Forgiveness.” I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.

Michael McCullough directs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of Miami. He works with social scientific research as well as emerging discoveries in biology and brain chemistry. His focus on the biology of revenge and forgiveness has taken him into other related areas of human moral sentiments, gratitude, and self-control.

I interviewed Michael McCullough in 2008, just after he had published Beyond Revenge.

MS. TIPPETT: I think one of the important themes that comes through that I just, you know, that I think is important for us to talk about, to lay the ground work for what you have to say, what you are learning is that we lay people, citizens, consumers of science and journalism have to open our imaginations to think in new ways about subjects like revenge and forgiveness. That there are certain boxes in to which we’ve put these things.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: That’s right. One of the things that got me writing Beyond Revenge actually was the dissatisfaction with the kind of boxes that we all tend to put …

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: … revenge and forgiveness in as human dispositions. So if you turn on the news, you see certainly senseless acts of revenge. But we don’t really know what to do with those once we see those acts. What are the stories we tell ourselves about what causes those acts? What kind of judgments do we pass about the people who commit them? Do we demonize them? Do we call them animals? Those I think do tend to be the kind of conclusions we draw. And the more I read and the more I tried to dig deeply into not just the social sciences but also the biological sciences, as you say, the worse that story really seemed to fit, um …

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: … as it seems to me revenge is much more deeply etched into the human mind than — than those kind of stories would suggest.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I want to try to understand this, because you really talk about two different kind of preconceptions — or I can’t tell if they’re different or if they converge and I just don’t get it. On the one hand, there’s this idea, you know, that human nature really is brutish and that positive characteristics like generosity and love and forgiveness are exceptions to human nature. And then on the other hand, there is the disease model of revenge, which is more compatible with the way religious traditions tend to think about revenge — in the modern era, at least — and kind of the therapeutic model. Now do those ways of thinking come together or do they both — do they form us at the same time?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. Here’s what I think we are up against.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: If you go back to the Greek tragedies, what you see the Greeks grappling with is why revenge is so disruptive to their efforts to establish social order.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: You see and you know, you have — you have these amazing stories, right? Medea, she’s so angry at her husband for his unfaithfulness to her that she destroys her own children, right, as a way of trying to get back at him. And so it goes on and on throughout these great works of Western literature.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: I think what we tend to think from these images, which of course trickle in to, you know, more popular media, movies and novels.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Lord of the Flies, Westside Story, are some of the ones you mention these …

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Of course.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: Mad Max, um, let’s see, Death Wish, you know …

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: … and on and on and on. Is that revenge is a curse or a disease or some kind of poison that gets into minds and, um, sort of takes control of them and then wrecks individuals and wrecks societies and wrecks families. Then that affects how you think about what forgiveness is as well.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: And so, I think the thing that we tend to assume about forgiveness is that it’s a cure, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: That someone came along — some — some Einstein of the moral realm, some wonderfully wise person in history, and discovered how powerful forgiveness could be as an antidote to this toxin or this poison.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: And so we’re left really, I think, now, thinking about revenge and forgiveness as — in the case of revenge, something gone wrong in humanity and forgiveness being the thing we have to learn to do because we don’t know how to do it naturally.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I mean, so, one of the things you seem to be about is reclaiming the normalcy of both revenge and, uh, forgiveness as a part of human nature. I mean, I’d like to talk about revenge first, if we could, and why revenge is in us and what purpose it has served even in evolutionary terms.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: One study that really got my attention was a study on chimpanzees, which showed that if a chimpanzee is harmed by an individual that it’s living with, it has the ability to remember who that individual is and target aggression back at that individual in the 10 minutes, 20 minutes, hour later. And for most people, and certainly for me when I started working on this, I was surprised to know that chimpanzees had these kinds of mental abilities, right? I had to learn more. I wanted to know where else do you see this in the animal kingdom. You see it in other kinds of primates, such as one type of monkey that I like a lot, a monkey called the Japanese macaque.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: And Japanese macaques are very status-conscious individuals. They’re very intimidated by power; let’s just put it that way.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: They’re very intimidated by power. So if you’re a high-ranking Japanese macaque and you harm a low-ranking Japanese macaque, that low-ranking individual is not going to harm you back, right? It’s just too intimidating. It’s too anxiety provoking. But what they do instead, and this still astonishes me, is they will find a relative of that high-ranking individual and go seek that low-ranking cousin out or nephew and harm him in retaliation.

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. So it’s as if they’re saying, “You know, I’m not powerful enough to get you back, but what I’m going to do is I’m going to go harm your nephew.”

MS. TIPPETT: Now that does sound like human behavior, doesn’t it?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Right. And here’s the kicker, is when they’re harming this nephew, most of the time they’re doing it while the high-ranking individual is watching. They want the high-ranking individual to know that, you know, you can harm me. I know you can harm me. I know you’re more powerful than I am. But rest assured, I know how to get at what you care about and what you value.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I had this realization a few years ago when we did a program on the death penalty. It might seem simple but it seems so stunning to me to realize that the criminal justice system, and even, and especially, the death penalty in history, was progress because before there was any kind of criminal justice system, human societies regulated themselves by precisely that kind of revenge you’re describing.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Throughout most of human history we have not lived in complex societies with governments and states and law enforcement and prisons …


MR. MCCULLOUGH: … and contracts that we could enforce in a court to get people to do what they agreed to do. So the mechanism that individuals relied upon to protect themselves and to protect their loved ones and to protect their property was fear of retaliation. And if they could broadcast that fear of retaliation to the individuals they lived with, to their neighbors, to the people on the other side of the hill, and you could cultivate a reputation as a hothead so people knew not to mess with you, that was like an insurance policy. And you’re absolutely right that in a lot of the world this is still going on.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: And any time you disrupt that system, that system of government, that system of policing, that system of law enforcement, so people can’t trust that their interests are going to be protected, that desire for revenge comes back. And people will take revenge back into their own hands to protect themselves.

MS. TIPPETT: And I think you’re also saying in your research that — and also in terms of what we know about the brain — that the emotions, the reactions, that arise in response to grievance …


MS. TIPPETT: … are also — we are hard-wired to have those reactions, that they serve a purpose. I mean, I remember Sister Helen Prejean saying to me when we did that work on the death penalty, you know, she’s a great opponent of the death penalty, but she said, “Anger is a moral response,” you know?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: That’s right. It certainly is. Anger in response to injustice is as reliable a human emotional response as happiness is to winning the lottery, or grief is to losing a loved one.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: And if you look at the brain of somebody who has just been harmed by someone, right, they’ve been ridiculed or harassed or insulted — we can put those people into technology that allows us to see what their brains are doing, right? So we can look at sort of what your brain looks like on revenge. It looks exactly like the brain of somebody who is thirsty and is just about to get a sweet drink to drink or somebody who’s hungry who’s about to get a piece of chocolate to eat.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s like the satisfaction of a craving?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: It is exactly like that. It is literally a craving. What you see is high activation in the brain’s reward system. So, the desire for revenge does not come from some sick, dark part of how our minds operate. It is a craving to solve a problem and accomplish a goal.

[Sound bite of music, “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix]

MS. TIPPETT: And then I guess what is especially intriguing about your work as well, and perhaps even more surprising, even kind of takes us out of our boxes, than the fact that revenge is natural is that you are really suggesting also from a scientific perspective that we have a forgiveness instinct, an aptitude for forgiveness, and that has been crafted by natural selection just like revenge.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: I expected to find, frankly, less research as I dug through hundreds of scientific articles on the naturalness of forgiveness. But, boy, was I wrong. As it turns out, a lot of biologists have been trying to figure out what allows human beings to be the cooperative creatures that we are. We’re cooperative with each other in a way that really makes us pretty unique among mammals, for sure. You know, we cooperate with our relatives, but lots of animals do that. But we go further and we cooperate with people we’ve never met. We cooperate with people that we’re not related to. And by virtue of our abilities to cooperate with each other, we can build magnificent cities and radio stations and do all kinds of wonderful things. But one of the ingredients you have to have to get individuals to cooperate with each other is a tolerance for mistakes, OK?

MS. TIPPETT: Hmm. Interesting.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: You can’t get organisms that are willing to hang in there with each other through thick and thin and make good things happen despite the roadblocks and the bumps along the way if they aren’t willing to tolerate each other’s mistakes. Sometimes, if we’re cooperatively hunting — let’s say we’re some sort of animal that works together to hunt — sometimes, I’m going to let you down. And maybe it’s not even intentional, but I’m going to get distracted and I’m going to make a mistake. And if you take each of those mistakes as the last word about my cooperative disposition, you might just give up and so no cooperation gets done.

So, really, our ability — and across the animal kingdom many animals’ ability to cooperate with each other and make things happen that they can’t do on their own — is undergirded by an ability to forgive each other for occasional defections and mistakes.

MS. TIPPETT: Here’s a passage from your book, which, again, a lot of this just seems so basic, doesn’t it, when you articulate it, but it’s things we don’t see or think about. I mean, you know, you said that everyday acts of forgiveness are incredibly common among people who know each other.


MS. TIPPETT: You know, we think of forgiveness as these heroic acts and there are always these heroic examples of forgiveness. But you said we think of it as this balm for great wounds. But you said: “Yet, in daily life, forgiveness is more often like a Band-Aid on a scrape and at first glance perhaps only slightly more interesting. But, of course, uninteresting doesn’t mean unimportant.”

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Right. And this, again, was part of my attempt to do violence, I guess, to this metaphor of forgiveness as this difficult thing that we have to consciously practice and learn, because we don’t know how to do it on their own. I forgive my seven-year-old son every day, right?


MR. MCCULLOUGH: Because he’s an active, inquisitive seven-year-old who sometimes accidentally elbows me in the mouth when we’re cuddling and sometimes puts Crayons on the walls. And yet it seems demeaning to call it forgiveness.

MS. TIPPETT: To even call it forgiveness. Right.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Right. I wouldn’t dignify it with the term forgiveness. It’s just what you do with your children. You know, you — you accept their limitations and you move on. He broke my tooth once when I was drinking out of a water glass.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: I mean, parents have a million of these stories, right?


MR. MCCULLOUGH: But you don’t put any effort into forgiving. It naturally happens and you move on. And there’s a great evolutionary story about why it comes so easy in those kinds of circumstances too.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm, which is pretty obvious, I guess.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. I mean, evolution wasn’t kind to individuals who would seek revenge against their genetic relatives, bottom line, right? So we have this natural tolerance for the misbehavior of our children. So it is at that level you’re talking about incredibly mundane. We put no effort into it. It happens every day a thousand times. We would never even give it a second thought. And yet we do it over and over again.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Getting Revenge and Forgiveness.”

[Sound bite of music, “Dead Man Walking” by Bruce Springsteen]

One figure of public forgiveness whom Michael McCullough writes about is Bud Welch. His 23-year-old daughter Julie died in the bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. Here’s a statement Bud Welch made prior to the 2001 execution of Timothy McVeigh, the man responsible for that bombing.

MR. BUD WELCH: The first month after the bombing, I didn’t even want Tim McVeigh or Terry Nichols to even have trials. I simply wanted them fried. And then I finally come to realize that the reason that Julie and 167 others were dead is because of vengeance and rage. And when we take him out of his cage to kill him, it’s going to be the same thing. We will keep the circle of violence going. Number 169 dead is not going to help the family members of the first 168.

[Sound bite of music, “Dead Man Walking” by Bruce Springsteen]

MS. TIPPETT: You do talk about some amazing examples of forgiveness, of public forgiveness, one of them being Bud Welch. But I sometimes think that those kinds of examples that do make the news, like the bombing, also exalt forgiveness as something that’s really beyond the reach of most of us most of the time. You know, we kind of wish — we hope that we would be that gracious, perhaps, but it almost feels, um, superhuman.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Right. And if you look at Bud Welch and you look at that story from the outside and you ask yourself how can this man whose daughter was killed in this terrible explosion ever get over his rage, from the outside we have a really hard time imagining that. But if you look at the story of Bud Welch, actually what you find is he had a lot of help along the way. And if you look at the story very carefully, you can actually learn a lot about how the human mind evolved to forgive and what kind of conditions activate that instinct in human minds, because a lot of those conditions ended up falling into place for Bud. In fact, he doesn’t talk about forgiveness even for himself in that case as having been some massive struggle.

MS. TIPPETT: Well, it was incremental, also, wasn’t it? I mean, it gets reported as an act, but in fact it was a process.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. Yeah, that’s right. And along the way, there were events that he actually made happen for himself that turned forgiveness into one of these things that can be easier. For example, he actually sought out Timothy McVeigh’s father and visited him one day at the McVeigh home and had this moment he describes when he saw Timothy’s picture on the mantel.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: It was a high school graduation picture. And they were just making small talk and Bud said to McVeigh’s father, he said, “God, that’s a good-looking kid.” And the tears just began pouring out of the elder McVeigh. And what he realized then was that here was another father on the verge of losing a son, of losing a child. And that immediate experience of sympathy and compassion went a tremendous way in facilitating the forgiveness process for Bud.

So right off the bat, this real human interaction starts to turn forgiveness from something difficult to do to something that’s easier to do because this compassion has happened naturally in the course of real human interaction and then suddenly forgiveness is a little easier.

MS. TIPPETT: So this is getting to one of the really important points I think you make with your work, that if we can understand this forgiveness instinct and how, that even understanding it in terms of evolution, that we can start to create conditions where it can be empowered.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Right. The first is safety. Human beings are naturally prone to forgive individuals that they feel safe around. So if we have an offender that is apologizing in a way that seems heartfelt and convincing and has really convinced us that they can’t and won’t harm us in the same way again, OK, that’s a point on the forgiveness side. The human mind evolved for forgiveness to be something worth its while, and any successful organism is unlikely to have a mechanism in it that says, you know, “Just keep stepping on my neck. It’s OK.”

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right. Right.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Right. “But if you can convince me that you’re safe, right, that I don’t have to worry about being harmed in the same way a second time, maybe I’m willing to move a little bit forward.”

MS. TIPPETT: But it seems like that would be the hardest, um, condition or assumption to put in place in the context of many of the worst cycles of revenge in our world.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Sometimes safety comes through things like the rule of law, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Sometimes safety comes through you as a small-business owner dusting off that employee manual that you don’t think about anymore and asking yourself what is in here that would instruct an employee on what to do if they were being systematically harassed by a co-worker and that if there was a real serious infraction it would be dealt with in a way that restored that employee’s sense of safety, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: What can you do in your associations when somebody has a grievance, that when the neighbor has a band that he’s hired for a party playing at 12:30 on a Friday night, that you know how to make sure that doesn’t happen a second time, right? So that you don’t then have to say, “Well, I’m going to get back at that guy myself.”


MR. MCCULLOUGH: “I’m going to leave my garbage cans out all weekend long, which I know he hates,” right?

MS. TIPPETT: You’re talking about revenge in ordinary life, which is where I think we’re more comfortable talking about it in terms of warring tribes across the globe.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Well, I can take it in any — I mean, I — the thing I like about these principles is they’re scalable, right? Actually, usually people when — when people ask me about the book, they’re actually less interested in the geopolitical stuff.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: But I can, you know …

MS. TIPPETT: OK. Well, yeah, we’ll get there. So what’s the second after safety?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Value. We are inclined to forgive individuals who are likely to have benefit for us in the future. So we find it really easy, as I was saying, to forgive our loved ones or forgive our friends or forgive our neighbors or our business partners because there’s something in it for us in the future, right?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: And the costs sometimes of destroying a relationship that’s been damaged are just too high because establishing a new one is so difficult to do. So relationships that have value in them are ones in which we’re naturally prone to forgive.

[Sound bite of music, “The Prodigal Son” by the Rolling Stones)

MS. TIPPETT: We had some fun when we first created this show a few years ago — we asked listeners to share their favorite songs about revenge and forgiveness. As far as we can tell, revenge seems to make for better music. Listen to the “Songs of Revenge” playlist we compiled with tracks from Johnny Cash, Justin Timberlake, Ani DiFranco, and the Rolling Stones. That’s at onbeing.org. While you’re there, you can also download my complete, unedited conversation with Michael McCulloch. Again, onbeing.org.

Coming up, how the psychology and biology of forgiveness can apply to a noisy neighbor, or to Joseph Kony in Uganda. I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.

[Sound bite, “Sweet Forgiveness” by Susan Tedeschi]

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, “Getting Revenge and Forgiveness.”

Michael McCullough directs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory at the University of Miami. He understands both forgiveness and revenge as part of the birthright of the human species. And he’s learning how we can calm or trigger either impulse. I interviewed Michael McCullough in 2008 — as it happens, in the midst of the last presidential election season.

MS. TIPPETT: Let’s talk about this in terms of concrete challenges, and we’re in an election year. I wonder as you watch that, and you’re in the South, um, you’re in a politically charged state, how do some of these things you think about in terms of forgiveness, what runs through your mind when you think about how we might come to any kind of resolution about any of these difficult, divisive issues?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Uh, well, we do have a hard time seeing things from other people’s perspectives [laugh], and we tend to view other people who have positions different from ours as having much more similarity to each other than we do. We can see the great variety in our own positions.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, but we can’t see the variety in other people’s positions.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: No, that’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s interesting.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. We tend to paint them with the same brush. And so we tend to really simplify positions that other groups have or people on other sides of positions. So we have a simplified view. We tend to actually view them as more partisan and more extreme on average than the average really seems to be. And so there’s something about how the mind works and how it processes groups, right, when we think about people from over there, that other group …


MR. MCCULLOUGH: … that kind of causes us to not really view them with the same sort of humanity that we afford our own groups. You know, you think about an issue that you feel strongly about and that you know a lot about and you can say, “Well, actually, there are a lot of people who have sort of different views than mine. They’re not exactly the same,” and that allows you to view them as human beings, right?


MR. MCCULLOUGH: Um, harder to do something about the limitations of the mind. Or perhaps because of how the mind was actually designed to work, we have a harder time affording that kind of benefit of the doubt to other groups. So if we know that, then …

MS. TIPPETT: If we know that about ourselves, right, you’re saying if we can get an awareness about that, perhaps that is a beginning. [laugh]

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Then you can begin to say, “Well, they’re just a group of human beings, too, trying to muddle their way through a position that’s going to work for them.” And maybe that kind of recognition of their diversity as well can help. Then maybe we’ll have less anxiety about interacting in a civil way.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I mean, just to kind of go to the geopolitical level, you tell some stories about, let’s say, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, uh, where you have, you know, cycles, generations of grievance and revenge kind of layered on top of each other. And yet, you tell stories and we’ve all heard these kinds of stories and I’ve met some of these people who are, you know, amazing, who have still moved beyond that in themselves, have reached out to people on the other side, have formed just what you said, have come to see the other group as human and have formed friendship. And those kinds of stories don’t tend to be in the headlines. We hear the headlines of continued violence and continued animosity, right?


MS. TIPPETT: But from the studies you’ve seen or from what you know about how these things play themselves out in different societies, we know — what does it take? Is it possible even, say, in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis that one day those networks reach such a critical mass that the balance is shifted? I mean, does it work that way? Um, how does that kind of collective change really happen?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Some of it happens when people become too tired to fight, right? Or too …

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. You tell that story in northern Uganda.


MS. TIPPETT: Right? You said there’s an epidemic of forgiveness that’s grown out of fatigue as much as anything else.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: That’s right. That’s right. Sometimes the costs of maintaining grievances are so high that individuals and their groups will decide that they’ve pushed themselves to the brink. They’ve demonstrated their insistence on defending themselves, and they’ve shown that they will defend themselves to the end. And, having done that, it becomes possible to try to find a new way.

MS. TIPPETT: Would you tell the story of what’s happening in northern Uganda?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. So Uganda has been at war for many years. And part of the strategy of one of the rebel groups — it’s a group called the Lord’s Resistance Army, headed by a man named Joseph Kony — part of their strategy has been to abduct children, boys and girls, from their villages and from their tribes and take them off into the woods and essentially brainwash them and send them …

MS. TIPPETT: They’ve also had the children do horrible things, right, before they leave, killing their own siblings, so that they can’t go back, they’re so ashamed that their parents won’t take them back, right? I mean, it’s terrible.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Yes. I mean, they send them back to kill their own families.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: To kill members of their own villages, their own tribes, to maim them, to disfigure people unrecognizably, to cut off their lips and ears and noses. They give the girls as child brides to the soldiers. And through this really heartless, brutal tactic, you know, they do a couple of things. One is that they destroy the culture of these villages, the fabric of their own history. And they also create new foot soldiers for their army.

The costs of this have been so high, both from a security point of view and from a cultural point of view, that many of the rank and file, just regular people living in Uganda, particularly this one group called the Acholi, have just simply grown so tired of these cycles of violence and their inability to solve them using military force that they’ve really been pressing the government to offer amnesty — official amnesty, not only to Kony, but they’ve been offering an official amnesty to any of the children, any of the sons and daughters of their own villages who’ve been spirited away like this and brainwashed and turned into killers.

And they’ve used radio programs, radio broadcasts, word of mouth, newspapers, really any vehicle they can get hold of to send this message out: that if you will come back to your village, lay down your arms, meet with the elders, meet with the community, and work out a plan for demonstrating your desire to rejoin us, we’ll let you rejoin us as a member of our community in good standing.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: And they’ve been coming back in groups as large as 300, 400, 500, 900, laying down their guns, working out plans for reparation, right, trying to find some way to compensate victims for the harms they’ve caused, at risk to themselves, mind you. I mean, these returnees now have to worry about these villagers’ own desires for revenge against them. So they take a risk in coming back and yet many of them are doing it, and in part it really is because there just isn’t another way.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: Here is a Welsh ethnomusicologist, Peter Cooke, describing how the very Ugandans Michael McCullough mentioned have integrated grief, outrage, and a longing for forgiveness in the music they sing. And their songs explicitly address warlord Joseph Kony.

MR. PETER COOKE: Now it’s very interesting. They live in slums around Kampala. What do they sing about? First of all, they preserve some of the songs from their village competitions. “We are number one. We are the best group. We are going to win,” this kind of thing. Secondly, they’ll sing about this war in the north, how awful it is. But in the same song, when they’re complaining that their women are raped, that their sisters give birth in the bush, and so on, they will say, “Kony, come talk with us. Come talk with us. Let’s get it settled.” “Otti” — who’s now dead, by the way, killed by Kony — “come talk with us. It’s time for peace.” And this — these songs are being sung at the same time as bureaucracy overseas will say the international criminal court wants to arrest Kony and try him. There’s a lot of forgiveness for the sake of a lasting peace and building one as soon as possible.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett with On Being. Today, “Getting Revenge and Forgiveness,” with research psychologist Michael McCullough.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: We replaced one of the truly awful dictators …


MR. MCCULLOUGH: … of the late 20th century when we removed Saddam Hussein. You know the story there. And yet, it is also true that when we did that, and particularly when we disbanded the army, we did away with the only structure that was capable of holding a lot of very old tribal and ethnic and sectarian grudges in check.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. This is a really interesting point you make, that strong governments — and it cuts both directions. Even repressive governments squelch or kind of take on all that revenge function, right?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: That’s right. Yep.

MS. TIPPETT: And so that helps me understand why sometimes when you have terrible regimes fall apart, Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein’s regime and even in South Africa, some of these rivalries, these kind of primitive rivalries, if you want to call it that, come to the surface.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: That’s right. I like to ask people to look out their windows in their office or their homes and imagine what your life would look like if the police and the National Guard and the fire department and the paramedics stopped working tomorrow, because of a natural disaster. People are hungry. People are — they have needs. And how would you put security into place yourself? What you would do is you would probably find your friends and find your family and you’d circle the wagons.

MS. TIPPETT: So in terms of what average people can do in the course of more ordinary lives, let me ask you the question this way. I mean, how do you think you live differently? How do you conduct yourself differently with, um, people you fundamentally disagree with on important social issues, with irritating people at work? How do you conduct yourself differently because of what you know scientifically in this research you do?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: The thing that I have realized is that many times if you’ve been harmed by somebody, you don’t have any choice but to try to forgive it on your own, because the person’s gone, the person’s dead, the person will have nothing to do with you.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: There’s just no bridge there. But in lots and lots of cases, forgiveness is just a conversation away. I mean, there are so many people if you ask them about the hurt that they remember from junior high or high school, what you often find is there was never any conversation back with that person who harmed them.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: And so the conclusion I’ve come to is in many, many cases if you want forgiveness, if you want to forgive or if you want to be forgiven, you need to go out there and get it for yourself. And the way you go out and get it for yourself is by trying to have the kind of conversation with the person you hurt that you want to have. In my family we apologize about a lot …

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, apology is an important concept for you. You say that it really, even biologically, it’s important for us.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Apology is really important, because when I apologize to you for something I’ve done, you see me squirming. You see me uncomfortable. You see me trying to reassure you that I’m not going to harm you in the same way again. You see me giving you respect as a human being with feelings. And all of a sudden, I’ve turned on a lot of the slider switches that make forgiveness happen in your head.

MS. TIPPETT: You say also that you’ve made it the next best thing to revenge.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: That’s right. That’s right.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s fulfilled some of those needs we have.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Oh, there are so many people who, once they see someone who’s harmed them cry and experience shame and experience humiliation for the way they’ve behaved, suddenly it’s the forgiver who’s doing the healing, right, who’s reaching out to the perpetrator. This happens so many times. All people often need is this kind of vigorous conversation about the past. Now, if this were so easy, people would be doing it all day.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: So I don’t pretend that. But at the same time, I really think we can’t lose sight of the value of kind of getting in each other’s business a little bit and getting in each other’s lives a little bit and being willing to try to make things a little bit uncomfortable and a little bit messy in the service of making them better.

MS. TIPPETT: And, I mean, again, when, if you just read the headlines, you read about what’s going wrong in the world today, what are the worst most entrenched crises. I do sense from your research where you kind of try to take a global view and look at civil wars that have happened in recent years that have been resolved, I mean, that you kind of feel that there is progress, that on balance there’s more reconciliation happening; is that right?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. I’m so optimistic about our future, because, again, if you look at that long arc of history, as you suggest, what you see is — for example, the homicide rate. We worry about the homicide rate, as we should. It goes up some years, it goes down other years, and — and we worry. But over the long arc of history — you take Western Europe — homicide rates are a twentieth and in some countries a fiftieth of what they were 600, 800 years ago, right?

So if we take this long perspective, what seems to be happening is actually we’re getting better and better control over human beings’ potential for aggressiveness. And a lot of that homicide 600-800 years ago was in fact vengeance motivated. But when we get control of those instincts and we give people other tools to deal with their grievances, they will restrain themselves.

So Iraq may look dismal to some. It’s, you know, been terrible for our country and the world in so many ways, and yet I see coming out of it, whenever that is, a society that’s going to rebuild itself into a peaceful society. I don’t know how long it will take — it’s above my pay grade, as they say, but this is what societies tend to do. They tend to find the best way to rebuild in the aftermath of these kinds of collapses in ways that will promote cooperation.

MS. TIPPETT: And you’re really saying that on the basis of lots of research, aren’t you? I mean, this is not just wishful thinking.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: If you, I mean, if you put societal structures in place where people feel their rights are protected, and they feel that they see a way forward for making a living in a peaceful way, and you put incentives in place like that where there’s security, they prefer peace over war, every time.

Ms. Tippett: So from everything you know, I mean, what feels really important for you to pass on to your children practically?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: I have a four-year-old daughter who’s a little bit too young for this still, but with our seven-year-old, I really have tried to encourage him to be vigorous about acknowledging his mistakes and the harms that he causes his friends, whether that’s just a careless word or excluding somebody from a game or whatever, because so much of forgiveness comes down to interaction. It comes down to knowing that an offender is not the person you thought he was when he hurt you or she was when she hurt you. It’s changing that perception.

It’s simple things, but we try to teach him that — what someone needs after they’ve had their feelings hurt. We think if we can explain to him what the mind needs after someone’s been offended, then we can teach him how to be vigorous and not worry about having to look like he’s right all the time or having to look like he’s perfect or denying his mistakes. If he can own up to them, that’s a vigorous healthy way to keep his friendships intact.

MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, I think a simplistic view, and you kind of touch on this in your book, of what religion can do in terms of forgiveness. When I look at all your research and have this conversation with you, it seems to me that in terms of where religion can play a constructive role in this, and religion is often implicated in places where there’s terrible violence going on, but perhaps not in the first instance, teaching forgiveness, but some of the teachings that come out of religious traditions about caring for the other, about caring for the stranger.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the best things we can do with religious faith is give people an appetite for difference. And the major world religions all have the resources for doing this, for getting people excited about people who are different from them.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. Yeah.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: It’s not every brand, right, that exercises that prerogative, but in the scriptures and traditions of every world religion that has been successful on a grand scale, there is a story there about the love of difference.

MS. TIPPETT: Compassion towards difference.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Right. Compassion toward difference, caring for the strangers in your midst, being able to see beyond superficial differences toward the essential commonalities.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: Religion is also good at appealing to people’s meaner sides and the more brutish side, and the resources are there for both. So it’s really up to those people who have a passion for reconciliation in their own faiths to make sure that the right tones are struck and the others are a little bit more muted.

MS. TIPPETT: Something that I’ve been aware of also is that this word “forgiveness” I think has a really Christian ring in many ears. But I’ve been very intrigued at, uh, you know, I remember speaking with a Holocaust survivor who said that, you know, for him the word “forgiveness” just didn’t do it and it has this cultural connotation of forgive and forget, but the Jewish phrase “repair the world,” you know, compels him in the same way he feels the word “forgiveness” compels Christians.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: I like that. I like that. I wish we could come up with a completely new word for what this human trait is.

MS. TIPPETT: Other than forgiveness?

MR. MCCULLOUGH: Yeah. Or maybe find some new way to talk about it so that we could unload a little bit of the baggage from the past, because some of the baggage is that it’s sort of a namby-pamby thing that doormats do or wimps do.


MR. MCCULLOUGH: You know, only sort of milquetoast types of people are interested in. But from everything I’ve managed to read and see and understand in my own work it’s that forgiveness is a brawny muscular exercise that I kind of imagine someone with a great passion for life and a great hardy sort of disposition being able to take on.

MS. TIPPETT: Wow. And you really feel that it’s essential to our geopolitical future, right, as well our — the health of our individual lives.

MR. MCCULLOUGH: It’s just too important. Yeah. It’s just too important. And the doors are open now. The doors are open for the use of this kind of language in the public sphere.

[Sound bite of music, “We Can Work It Out” by the Beatles]

MS. TIPPETT: Michael McCullough is a Professor of Psychology and a Cooper Fellow at the University of Miami. There he also directs the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory. His book is Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.

We end the show with more from our “revenge and forgiveness playlist” — including songs recommended by our listeners. You can hear all the tracks at onbeing.org.

[Sound bite of music, “One Way or Another” by Blondie]

[Sound bite of music, “Angry Any More” by Ani DiFranco]

[Sound bite of music, “Just You Wait, Henry Higgins” from My Fair Lady]

[Sound bite of music, “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele]

[Sound bite of music, “What Goes Around” by Justin Timberlake]

[Sound bite of music, “Anyway” by the Roches]

On Being on air and online is created by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Stefni Bell, Anne Breckbill, and Susan Leem.

Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.

[Sound bite of music, “Good-bye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks)


MS. TIPPETT: Next time, “Mathematics, Purpose, and Truth,” with physicist and novelist Janna Levin. Please join us.