The pleasure of revenge: retaliatory aggression arises from a neural imbalance toward reward

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Jul;11(7):1173-82. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsv082. Epub 2015 Jun 27.


Most of daily life hums along peacefully but provocations tip the balance toward aggression. Negative feelings are often invoked to explain why people lash out after an insult. Yet people might retaliate because provocation makes aggression hedonically rewarding. To test this alternative hypothesis, 69 participants underwent functional neuroimaging while they completed a behavioral aggression task that repeatedly manipulated whether aggression was preceded by an instance of provocation or not. After provocation, greater activity in the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) (a brain region reliably associated with reward) during aggressive decisions predicted louder noise blasts administered in retaliation. Greater NAcc activation was also associated with participants' history of real-world violence. Functional connectivity between the NAcc and a regulatory region in the lateral prefrontal cortex related to lower retaliatory aggression. These findings suggest that provocation tips the neural balance towards hedonic reward, which fosters retaliatory aggression. Although such pleasure of inflicting pain may promote retaliatory aggression, self-regulatory processes can keep such aggressive urges at bay. Implications for theory and violence reduction are discussed.

Keywords: aggression; lateral prefrontal cortex; nucleus accumbens; reward; self-regulation.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Affect
  • Aggression / psychology*
  • Anger
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Noise
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology
  • Pleasure / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult