This Is Your Brain On Grievance

Most of the people I consider “normal”–assuming there is such a thing–view America’s current dysfunctions with incomprehension. A phrase I hear more and more frequently from all sides of the political aisle is “what on earth is wrong with those people?”

Two articles from Politico suggest an answer.

The first is a collection of “explanations of the election” by twenty voters who display the various attitudes we’ve come to expect from an assortment of geographically and philosophically diverse Americans. (Hint: It’s the other guy’s fault…)

The second was a really fascinating article by James Kimmel, Jr., a lecturer in psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine, and a co-director of the Yale Collaborative for Motive Control Studies.  Evidently, people can become addicted to grievance in much the same way they can be addicted to drugs.

And as the collected opinions of those twenty Americans demonstrates, there’s a lot of grievance around.

Kimmel’s studies show that a brain on grievance looks a lot like a brain on drugs.

In fact, brain imaging studies show that harboring a grievance (a perceived wrong or injustice, real or imagined) activates the same neural reward circuitry as narcotics

This isn’t a metaphor; it’s brain biology. Scientists have found that in substance addiction, environmental cues such as being in a place where drugs are taken or meeting another person who takes drugs cause sharp surges of dopamine in crucial reward and habit regions of the brain, specifically, the nucleus accumbens and dorsal striatum. This triggers cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through intoxication. Recent studies show that similarly, cues such as experiencing or being reminded of a perceived wrong or injustice — a grievance — activate these same reward and habit regions of the brain, triggering cravings in anticipation of experiencing pleasure and relief through retaliation. To be clear, the retaliation doesn’t need to be physically violent—an unkind word, or tweet, can also be very gratifying.

Evidently, people can become addicted to seeking retribution against those they consider their enemies. Kimmel has a name for it: revenge addiction, and he suggests this may explain why some people just can’t “get over it”  long after others feel they should have moved on. (He also warns that some of those people may resort to violence.)

The hallmark of addiction is compulsive behavior despite harmful consequences. Trump’s unrelenting efforts to retaliate against those he believes have treated him unjustly (including, now, American voters) appear to be compulsive and uncontrollable.

Unfortunately, this addiction to revenge doesn’t only affect Trump.

Like substance addiction, revenge addiction appears to spread from person to person. For instance, inner-city gun violence spreads in neighborhoods like a social contagion, with one person’s grievances infecting others with a desire to seek vengeance. Because of his unique position and use of the media and social networks, Trump is able to spread his grievances to thousands or millions of others through Twitter, TV and rallies. His demand for retribution becomes their demand, causing his supporters to crave retaliation—and, in a vicious cycle, this in turn causes Trump’s targets and their supporters to feel aggrieved and want to retaliate, too.

If a revenge addiction is as contagious as Kimmel believes, what can we do about it? Kimmel warns that addiction interventions are risky and that they often backfire.

Unfortunately, Kimmel doesn’t have any quick fixes to offer; he says we’re in for a long haul. Worse, neither Trump nor those he’s “infected” are likely to heal until we (and he) realize how the politics of grievance is damaging us.

Several commenters to this blog–not to mention pundits and academics, among others– have worried about the weaponizing of grievance by political parties and interest groups who recognize that playing on our fears and anger generates donations and motivates voters.  Similarly, media outlets and social networks use grievance to attract clicks and increase sales. In a very real sense, they’ve become dealers.

We need to turn down the heat.

I still remember those old (ineffective) anti-drug TV ads that showed a hand breaking an egg into a hot frying pan, and a voice-over intoning: This is your brain on drugs!

Can we avoid frying that egg by turning off the burner beneath it? As Trump departs, can we “turn off” some of the incivility and nastiness he promoted–the rhetoric that generates grievance?

Maybe “political correctness” isn’t such a bad thing….


  1. Good thoughts. Once again I come to the MONEY component of this. If corporate America stopped funding the Hate networks / outlets, that would help. Defund Rush, Defund Fox etc.

  2. Ah, the bottom line – political correctness. I’ve always associated the term with civility and common courtesy. Limbaugh on the right and Bill Maher on the left deride it. As you’ve indicated, outrageousness and shock value generate ‘clicks’, commentary, ratings, and profits.

    Fringe elements now have more believers thanks to their media exposure. I don’t see a change in sight as long as there’s money to be made by being more outrageous. I thought Trump’s uncivil and scandalous behaviors would surely divorce him from evangelicals. They didn’t. Biden’s win won’t solve the right-wing media promotion of conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods. They’ll attack him incessantly and will manufacture ‘alternative facts’ to do so whenever they feel a need to diminish his popularity or boost their own ratings and bottom line. I don’t countenance censorship, but how does democracy survive constant disinformation?

  3. Reagan should never have repealed the “Fairness Doctrine,” which required the media to report both sides of an issue. Thanks, Roger Ailes.

  4. I suggest a crucial early — if not the first step — is to drop all “what about” defenses or attacks. They are lazy. They elevate the heat. They are circular. Logically, “what abouts” do not elevate “your guy.” “What abouts” lower your guy to the lower level. We just need to admit that all sides suffer from horrible actions and statements. Perhaps a solution is to negotiate a truce on the worst of our worst — think of — “I won’t hold all Republicans responsible for everything Steve King has said if you Republicans won’t hold all Democrats responsible for everything that AOC has proposed.” This is not equivalency — it is movement to a more peaceful middle.

  5. From my perspective, raised in England where self-control (stiff-upper-lip) was a hallmark of civility, political correctness has always represented a thoughtful, empathetic approach to human relations. The contemporary version of “Do unto others…” However, the elevation of useless celebrity – Honey-Boo-Boo, The Kardashians, Melania Trump, etc. – where abhorrent behavior is rewarded, appears to have eroded any sense of responsibility for personal attitudes and actions. Although, lip-service is paid to helping those less fortunate, we really do live in a prehistoric environment where all vestiges of civilization seem to have vanished.

  6. Someone on this blog finally answer my oft repeated question as to WHY the Republican party chose Trump as their presidential nominee; their answer was that the vote taken by RNC of that long list of wannabes resulted with Trump getting 20% of the vote which was the highest. That may be some off-the-wall view of democracy but what about the 80% who voted against Trump? We have been dealing with more than 80% of the Republican Congress supporting their 20% nominee result of the RNC vote in all of his wrongdoing, often on treasonous and seditious level. The outcome of that 20% vote explains for me why RNC Chairman Michael Steele left his chairmanship behind to become a spokesperson who views the current Republican government disaster from an outside-looking-in position of clarity.

    None of which explains the more than 80% of the Republican party supporting the Trump disaster as millions sink into poverty level survival-of-the-fittest as Trump’s reign of terror is hopefully coming to an end. If he continues playing golf while this country burns; how will President Elect Biden and Vice President Elect Harris reinstate the stimulus bills to a new Congressional vote before the homeless, starving and Covid-19 death rates rise beyond recovery? They will not be seeking grievance or revenge but salvation of the United States of America and remaining Americans to begin reinstating democracy, Rule of Law and upholding the Constitution and its Amendments.

    At the psychiatric level; are the Trump supporters in his administration and Congress seeking some political revenge grievance, a psychological need to maintain the power they have been given in this administration or are they, like those dying with Covid-19 who deny its existence, victims of “brain blindness”?

    Trump has vetoed the Defense bill, ignored the stimulus bill deadline and tomorrow we face the possibility of another government shutdown by Trump as well as Pence’s announcement of the final Electoral College count for the presidential election. What will the morrow bring?

  7. The point not mentioned is that psychopaths don’t care a whit about anyone but themselves. The “addiction” to grievance is, I hate to say it, normal to the human condition. When I was in the Army, lo those many years ago, we were inculcated with grievance against our enemies on a daily, if not hourly basis.

    Trump is clearly a psychopath, but he’s also a con man. How many times did we hear him tell is drooling audience what victims they all were. They lapped it up, because they WANTED to be aggrieved so they could justify their own failures. Trump is their muse, not because he necessarily feels aggrieved (other than the fact that he’s been sued for 30 years by everyone he’s bilked), but because he needs the power of the masses to assuage his disease.

    To prove this point, Trump is pocket vetoing the relief bill. Why? Because he wants the people who actually need the money to feel aggrieved at Congress for “only” wanting to pay $600 instead of the $2,000 he wants. Keep in mind that he was NOT involved with the bill’s creation from the start. So, he’s going to make Congress be the bad guy to the aggrieved.

    And this won’t stop once he’s out of office. Addiction? This pathetic psychopath is addicted to power. And because he is such an inherently weak wretch, weaning off of that power train is simply out of the question. His “addiction” mentality won’t accept it.

    Donald Trump is a very sick and dangerous person. Not a man, really, just a thing.

  8. It seems we all need a collective coma, complete with amnesia. Even political correctness is in the eye of the beholder. As I read today’s blog and comments, I started to think about a favorite poem by Robert Frost. It’s called “Fire and Ice:”

    “Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice,
    from what I’ve tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire;
    But if it were to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate,
    to say that for destruction ice is also great
    and would suffice.”

    Find those things in life that bring you joy!

  9. I’m in Vernon’s corner. I didn’t bother clicking the first link as I just can’t read that crap any more. The 2nd article provided an interesting viewpoint and it certainly provides a credible explanation of all this MASS airing of grievances. But it doesn’t explain Trump.

    Some time ago I discovered the writings of Dr. Elizabeth Mika, a NYC area psychologist, who wrote a series of articles about Trump, his personality disorder of malignant narcissism, and the unwillingness of the mainstream press to say one word about it (known as The Goldwater Rule). That his behavior is driven by a personality disorder is very important because: 1) it is much more difficult if not impossible to treat and 2) people with it are marked by a deficit of conscience, especially that of empathy.

    Below is one of a number of essays she’s written, this one in February 2017, a month after his inauguration. Others by her can be found on The Medium platform.

  10. Patrick Traub, the middle ground is boring. When you have to read a whole paragraph to understand an explanation, it’s boring. Nobody clicks on that! It is hard work to understand both sides of an issue. Nobody wants to do that.

    Reinstating the Fairness Doctrine, and reforms to Section 230 are a start, but it will never happen without reeling in corporate lobbying and campaign dollars, so now we are stuck.

    Immigration to New Zealand or Australia are looking better and better. With the constitutional differences, and being the southern hemisphere they will get less nuclear fallout when the US finally melts down.

  11. Just when you think and hope factual reality will return we still have to deal with the nightmare in the White House. It can’t be soon enough for Biden and Harris to lead us out of this insanity,

  12. Vernon wrote @ 7:30 am:

    “To prove this point, Trump is pocket vetoing the relief bill. Why? Because he wants the people who actually need the money to feel aggrieved at Congress for “only” wanting to pay $600 instead of the $2,000 he wants. Keep in mind that he was NOT involved with the bill’s creation from the start. So, he’s going to make Congress be the bad guy to the aggrieved.”

    He is also threatening to Veto the bloated Defense Budget.

    The Trumpet is punishing The GOP in particular for not being loyal to him in his attempts to over turn the election results. The various farcical attempts by Rudy and other enablers to overturn the election have failed.

    The Trumpet is threatening to scuttle the Ship of State unless he gets his way, which is to have him proclaimed President.

  13. Wow, Kimmel’s a genius!

    It’s the same way when someone beats their partner or mate! They derive some sort of release, some sort of endorphin fed satisfaction!

    if anybody has actually been alive on this planet since the early 90s, terrorism has been thriving on this planet! When people feel they’re going to go to heaven for blowing up shopping malls and doctors offices, well, that does show an addiction to pain driven pleasure.

    This is because just as mentioned in Sheila’s morning blog post, inner City gun violence spreads like a virus. That’s true, there is unity in seeking that sort of camaraderie in misery or misery driven pleasure! Kind of like all for one and one for all, and this is been the way since time immemorial!

    Like I’ve mentioned before, history is cyclical, grievance leads to conflict, conflict leads to fanaticism, fanaticism on the whole leads to regret after much bloodletting, and then starts all over again! The next generation never learns from the previous.

    Propaganda whips people into a frenzied state, just like someone waiting for that shot of heroin, or a fistful of opioids or that fat blunt, or that bottle of Jack, or maybe the next time they can beat their wife, to feel good inside! Then comes the letdown or the withdrawal, and the need for more!

    Let’s face it, mankind is not very intellectual to say the least, and for a species that’s supposed to be infused with reason, mankind seems to not use much of that either.

    Humanity will always flock towards the next fix! And that is always the next grievance driven conflict!

    Self aggrieved, self satisfaction, self-destruction!

    There have always been those who have learned how to manipulate through the propaganda, but just as Dr Frankenstein learned, the monster you create will be your demise!

  14. Even if we can collectively turn down “the burner,” that will be insufficient to change the neurochemistry/neurobiology of our brains. Once our pleasure centers have experienced intense dopamine “hits” many many times, it can take a long time for formerly pleasurable activities, thoughts and feelings to feel pleasurable again. The brain has a lot to relearn in recovery from addiction. If we can change our thinking, feelings and behavior for at least thirty days and challenge our brains with new learning, our brains begin to remodel themselves structurally as well as neurochemically. In other words we have to commit to working hard to change our brains so that we can change our minds when we are addicted. My personal grievance quotient has increased dramatically over the last four years, despite my effort to diminish it. My observation is that the the grievance quotient in your blog and in many or most of us who comment on it has also been increasing for the last four years. We are indeed, all being infected through “social contagion.”

  15. Is grievance “grief” of another form? The five stages of grief are: denial. anger. bargaining. depression. acceptance. Wonder if we are stuck on stage 2 – anger? Not sure we are doing much “bargaining”. Maybe we skipped forward to depression…

    Are we on the road to “acceptance”? Let’s take the “road not taken” – positive action.

  16. The Fairness Doctrine only applied to broadcast media. So it would never have applied to Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Newsmax, OANN, etc. I’m not sure it’s a good idea to have government telling broadcasters what they must cover. That seems very anti-First Amendment. I understand that the problem is that people are getting info from their own silos and not being exposed to outside views. But I’m not sure the Fairness Doctrine is the answer to that, even if its application was somehow expanded to include media outlets that do not need broadcast licenses to operate..

    I think we need to stop blaming big corporate money for funding the right wing media. There are a million different places Trumpers get their “information” from, many of which are extremely low budget. The other day I was wasting time on Twitter and I saw Trumpers exchanging links about niche websites, podcasts, etc., where they could go to get the “real truth” the mainstream media like Fox would not report. These people are turning away from well-funded right wing media b/c they’re not telling them what they want to hear. If anything, these outlets, like Fox, which are backed by big corporate money, have some limitations (in what they cover because they want the money to continue flowing.

    The problem is that people are seeking out information that only fits their worldview. This wasn’t a problem before because we all generally had a handful of places where we could get information. We were all working off the same set of facts. Now, people can seek alternative facts if they don’t like the facts that mainstream media is offering.

    I think it is a mistake to assume this is just a conservative thing. While right now it’s more of a problem on the right side of the political spectrum, that doesn’t mean it won’t also become a bigger problem for liberals/progressives down the road.

    I’m not sure how to fix the problem.

  17. Lester,

    I’m sure Walter Cronkite would be flummoxed just as much as he was during his national newscasts. But just like the rest of the world, it’s the frog in the pot existence. Turn up the heat slowly enough, you end up boiled.

  18. Paul,

    There really isn’t much you can do about it! Because if you swing so far in the opposite direction of what’s going on now, it’s an authoritarian existence anyway. If you try to shut down the information highway so to speak, it’s going to validate those conspiracies.

    What’s happening now is our extinction level event, except no one looks at it that way. Dr. Frankenstein thought he was doing something good! In the end, it destroyed him. Social media is our Frankenstein’s monster, it started out as something perceived as good, in the end, it is destroying society.

    Slow motion train wreck that really is not slow motion anymore, driven by an unlimited amount of click bait crack! Just as people set up for days smoking crack, they sit up for days clicking on that next article or commenting on some trolls statement, completely wide-eyed and disheveled!

    They have no purpose in life, because there is no direction. They have to be told what to think, what to feel, what to believe, they become automatons, looking for that next injection of pleasurefull endorphins, wherever it comes from!

  19. So the brain records the displeasure of grievance but even if the grievance is addressed there is its memory plus new unaddressed grievances to go forward due to addiction? Trump has done a good job in spreading his addiction to the masses – 70 million of them who were infected with his sense of grievance, vicariously, more (so far) than those who are infected with coronavirus – one of such diseases being physically fatal and the other unless addressed perhaps fatal to democracy.

    Thus we have two problems, neither of which will automatically disappear with Trump’s removal from the Oval Office. I agree with the psychiatrist cited by Professor Kennedy today, i. e., I have no answer. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the realm of diplomacy rather than brain surgery. Whatever works.

  20. This subject has been explored previously under the rubric, “The ‘Poor Me’ Syndrome.” For a man who enjoys all the material blessings the world has to offer, and more than his fair share of power besides, Trump is inordinately focused on the injustice he must endure. He seems aware that no one likes him, and I think he finds this condition painful. Or at least I hope so. If there’s a God in heaven (which I seriously doubt), Trump’s contribution to the deaths of 320,000 people for whom he has never expressed sympathy should weigh heavily on whatever is left of his vestigial soul.

    I might personally harbor some grievance addition toward Trump’s atrocities over the past four years, but that is counterbalanced by my schadenfreude over the personal meltdown he is now experiencing. Not since Lady Macbeth’s diagnosis of PTSD has any character made such a public display of his childish inability to cope with his worthlessness. It’s one thing to feel helpless and inferior. It’s quite another to want to share those feelings with the world, especially when you control the loudest microphone.

  21. It seems that some in the country focus on how bad a human Trump is and the people who support him seem to focus on how bad other people are.

    The addiction to grievance research seems quite explanatory to me.

  22. Terry, your concern as to whether there is a God in heaven was apparently shared (depending on how you want to read and understand it) by Albert Einstein who (in a neat sidestep) when asked if he were an atheist, replied that “I’m not smart enough to be an atheist.”

  23. Joanne, I believe that the people in his administration are not into grievance, but simply want to hold on to power, probably for the sake of the money that this can continue to accrue to them.
    Vernon, I do not think the Trump is addicted to power, but that his actions are just the expression of his Malignant Narcissism,and its zero-sum perspective. He may also be worried about post office prosecution, of course.
    I did read the 20 letters, and found them to give much too much voice to the idea of massive voter fraud. I, personally, find it hard to believe that so many can buy into that gaslighting, but that’s why gaslighting is so powerful.
    Kimmel’s piece about grievance addiction is fascinating, and the findings of the related research may be very helpful for some.
    I have to disagree with him in regard to the idea that Trump’s loss “shows” him anything about a need to change. Kimmel seems to loose sight of the depth of Trump’s illness. This is a personality disorder that, in a sense, IS who Trump is. It totally confines his ability to understand anything that does not fit into his world view.
    If Kimmel is right we will never heal because Trump can not “realize how the politics of grievance is damaging us,” nor would he care if he could realize it. He does not care about the “us,” in there, and is only bale to see his felt need to win, AT ALL COSTS. He lives in a zero-sum world, and not being the winner is akin to psychiatric death.
    I hold some hope for his “Non-Justice system” in general, but not for a Trump. Compassion shown to Trump would most (very) likely be perceived by him as a sign of weakness and something to use for still further manipulation.
    And, yes, once again, we need to resurrect the Fairness Doctrine. One of the 20 letter writers referred to Reagan as a “great” president, but if nothing else, and there is much else, he allowed the killing off of the doctrine, and paved thawed for Fox, Limbaugh and the rest of those f***ers!
    Paul, I may be a bit thick, but I do not see how Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Newsmax, OANN, etc. are not broadcast media.

  24. being i deal with many of the above mind orders daily, its not hard to hear,and see the person. in a working blue sweat world of everyone is above someone else, seems trump follows the herd. sweeping up the shit and pouring it back on. talking about what kind of person he is, when ,theres real history behind him long before the dark ages. (2020).. we can scope and poke the whys and wheres and hows, but in a country that seeks to fatten a pocket of profit over mental health,its obvious why we have the satuts quo. my revenge tactics are real, some trucker causes me a hard time, his truck wont run until he pays the bill at a truck shop. am i satisfied, nope. just having a bit of fun to remind him that his assholio ways have been rated as non dependant, from three shrinks. but if i was to allow the assholio to merry on his way,he would get no reminder. like todays cons and convicted in the trump pardon fiasco.
    no punishment,and alls good. now, tell me,what kind of brain stimulus grants this reward? as i see trump at this moment,hes blowing off steam and laughing at America how stupid. a corp asswipe who uses the system passed down for gens,to wipe his feet on. i bet in 10 years no one,will ever convict him of another autrocity. now if you could make a golf ball that makes his ego go play golf, then we have accomplished something..

  25. Mitch:
    broadcast media, if its a public airwave,with a licence,its broadcast media. the fairness doctrine,is and was,the breach that the monied faction wanted removed,a one way street,to profit and power. bet ya never heard a thing about how, wall street numbers could in fact, become a living wage for the working class. dont broadcast it, not mention it,just allow the status quo tell us again how damn luckey we are. get that credit update,from a purple com,the app, you know, how to get people deeper in debt while following them around.imagine the media having to recognize the fact why poverty is growing, and healthcare why it doesnt happen. 150 million people using the stock market cant be wrong. id rather save my money,if i had a living wage to do that,instead of feeding the greed.

  26. Sadistic and Seditious,

    The similarity of these words in meaning would seem they both start with S, and that would be the end of it!

    But a sadistic behavior, which as a behavior, derives an endorphin laced euphoric rush, similar to that of a drug high or sex, can directly correlate to a seditious mentality.

    An absolute power that would allow a person to abuse anything or anyone for the sake of pleasure, it is the same sort of thought process sedition lends itself to.

    Sadists and seditionists both work around the fringes of moral boundaries, eventually diving into moral turpitude.

    It’s the monster that has been created in the search for absolute power and the ability to Dole out the maximum amount of misery. Freedom of The big payback!

    Words that are of different meanings but indelibly linked in human history. Two words that can describe human history fairly accurately. They describe, war, slavery, torture, treason, abuse, conquest, authoritarianism, Amorality, basically a Zeitgeist of evil.

    The correlates well also with the story of Cain and abel, Cain murdered his brother because of his jealousy, Cain knew he was going to kill his brother, he knew he was going to sadistically bash his skull in with a rock, and seditiously he was going to separate himself from his god!

    Of course Cain didn’t think about the consequences, just the rush and the initial pleasure of venting his perceived slight by God.

  27. Good on ya Anita: Being famous for being famous gave me such a chuckle. Honey Boo-Boo (and Mama June), the Kardashians (and their husbands, significant others, and kids), Melania, and that guy she married are exactly what delights the challenged in so many ways. A couple of these need to be packing to leave for someplace other than Washington, DC. With luck we can hope that the rest will just simply disappear. Poof! Gone! All gone!

    C’mon back, Marv. You must surely have interesting things to say about what happens next.

    Read Dave Barry’s reflections on this wacked-out year! It’s guaranteed for many a giggle. He’s good!

  28. Broadcast media is media that uses the public airwaves to distribute content. The cable news networks don’t use the public airwaves to distribute their content. I agree that in this day and age, there may be a reason to revisit that distinction, but alas it still exists.

  29. ” . . .neither Trump nor those he’s “infected” are likely to heal until we (and he) realize how the politics of grievance is damaging us.”

    Ohh-oh! We’re in deep S*@t! “He” will never realize anything about himself or his impulses – he lacks the capacity for self-reflection – a trait of the malignant narcissist. I fully expect to see some network pick him for his own show after he leaves office so he can spread his “grievances” and rake in the $$$ for himself & the network. ?

  30. Most people dont understand how the electoral college works because they don’t know about or haven’t been taught about the federalist papers. And how that makes us a republic.
    They also are falling into the whims of the leftist thought that mob rule or a direct democracy is how we should be governed on a national level.
    What holds us together is the democratic republic. What will bring us to utter chaos quickly and turn socialistic thought or the advancement of social programs thru big government and the cancel culture crowd as a means to do so is actually a mode of political facism President Reagan warned us that facism will come thru socialism and that we are only one generation away from losingbour freedoms.
    Getting rid of the republic thru mob rulec will causevpeople to have less faith instead of greater faith in our government.. .

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