Justice Addiction: Recent Brain Imaging Studies

A Root Cause of Violence: Justice-Seeking As Compulsive/Addictive Disorder With A Brain-Biological and Genetic Basis


Research Citations


Justice-Seeking as Root Cause of Violence:

James Gilligan, M.D., Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes (New York: Putnam 1996) 11-12 (“The first lesson that tragedy teaches…is that all violence is an attempt to achieve justice, or what the violent person perceives as justice, for himself or for whomever it is on whose behalf he is violent…. Thus, the attempt to achieve and maintain justice, or to undo or prevent injustice, is the one and only universal cause of violence.”)

Justice-Seeking as Addiction:

Dominique J.-F.de Quervain et al, The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment, Science 27 August 2004, 305; 1254-58 (In 2004, Swiss researchers discover that the dorsal striatum—the part of the human brain that processes rewards such as the pleasure derived from desserts, desire, and narcotics—is also activated when humans inflict punishments upon wrongdoers. Using positron emission tomography, the scientists were able to observe the brains of human subjects during games in which they could use money units needed to win a game to punish other players who violated their trust. Study subjects who believed they were administering effective (as opposed to symbolic) punishment experienced increased activation in the caudate nucleus portion of the dorsal striatum and willingly expended a greater portion of their money units on punishment. In other words, they were willing to pay to get justice even if it might cost them the game because in getting even they experienced the same pleasure they received from eating a rich dessert, having sex or taking narcotics).

Tania Singer, et al., Empathic Neural Responses Are Modulated By The Perceived Fairness Of Others, Nature 2006 January 26; 439, 466-69  (In 2006, British researchers using brain imaging techniques to confirm the findings of the Swiss researchers that the pleasure centers of the brain that control reward processing are activated when a punishment deemed to be just is meted out—but learn further that this phenomenon is more pronounced in males than females—and that, for males, the empathy centers of the brain, which allow humans to empathize with others, remained dull. Here we begin to see a reason why males are far more involved than females in justice-seeking activities (fighting, criminal justice, warfare, etc.), and are far more willing to risk everything, including their own lives, to experience these activities.  Biologically speaking, men derive more pleasure from it and have a greatly reduced ability to empathize with the wrongdoer. The researchers also concluded that their study supports “the hyphothesis that humans derive satisfaction simply from seeing justice administered.”)

Strobel, A., et al, Beyond Revenge: Neural and Genetic Bases of Altruistic Punishment, NeuroImage, 54(1), 671-680 (2011) (In 2011, German researchers using both brain imaging and genetic testing techniques find that human subjects in an economic exchange game willingly punished wrongdoers who had cheated other players just as harshly as they if they had been cheated-on themselves. The researchers leading this study also observed activation of the nucleus accumbens—the region of the brain strongly implicated in narcotics addiction—when study subjects were personally involved in the administration of punishment. They also found that a genetic variation between study subjects of dopamine processing impacted nucleus accumbens activation, suggesting that people with different genetic makeups may experience the pleasure of justice-seeking differently. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure and reward centers.

Dreber, A, et al, Winners Don’t Punish, Nature 452: 348-50 (2008)(In 2008, researchers at Harvard University performed a study in which groups of human subjects were given the option of choosing cooperation, defection, or costly punishment as strategies to maximize their average payoff during economic cooperation games. After multiple rounds of the game with both the study subjects and a control group that had only the option of cooperation or defection, the researchers found that the groups that utilized the option of costly punishment increased the amount of cooperation within the game—but not the average payoff for the utilizing the punishment option. The groups that obtained the highest total payoff during the game—the winners of the game—did not engage in costly punishment at all. This led the researchers to conclude that: “winners don’t punish” and that punishment is maladaptive in such situations.)

Conclusion: Overlaying the above studies, one can begin to see that even though “winners don’t punish” (and, conversely, that “only losers punish”), many individuals, particularly males, seek justice in the form of revenge against perceived wrongdoers despite the high personal cost because of the narcotics-like brain-biological pleasure that is derived from punishing perceived wrongdoers. We also can begin to see that for particular individuals who may have genetic variations in dopamine processing, the pleasure (and compulsion) to punish may be greater.  This leads to the hypothesis of a “vulnerable brain” — a brain that is vulnerable both to substance abuse and justice-seeking, leading to enhanced antisocial/violent/criminal behavior.  We are also left to wonder whether punishing these individuals with confinement (when public safety does not require it) only exacerbates their condition and cravings for justice, and whether a better strategy for reducing crime and increasing public safety would be to develop effective interventions that help reduce or control the justice-seeking compulsion—such as 12-step programs (the 9-step “Nonjustice System” proposed by Attorney Kimmel in Suing for Peace, cognitive/behavioral therapies, or pharmachological interventions).