Well, Excuuuuuse Meee!

Why humans are so quick to take offense, and what that means for the presidential campaign.

“No man lives without jostling and being jostled; in all ways he has to elbow himself through the world, giving and receiving offense.”—Thomas Carlyle

Rarely has it been thought that the way to show you deserve to be the most powerful person on earth is to demonstrate you’re also the touchiest. This presidential campaign has been an offense fest. From the indignation over a fashion writer’s observation about Hillary Clinton’s cleavage, to the outraged response to the infamous Obama New Yorker cover, to the histrionics over “lipstick on a pig,” taking offense has been a political leitmotif. Slate’s John Dickerson observed that umbrage is this year’s hottest campaign tactic. And we can assume it will reach an operatic crescendo in these final weeks before Election Day.

It’s often the pettiest-seeming things that drive people mad. Or worse. Jostling our way through the world can have violent consequences. A significant percentage of murders occur between acquaintances with the flash point being a trivial insult. Sometimes it seems we live in a culture devoted to retribution on behalf of the thin-skinned—just think of university speech codes. Comedian Larry David even celebrates his skill at giving and taking offense on his television show Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Feeling affronted has global implications: Islamic organizations and countries seek to ban speech anywhere they decide is insulting to Islam, asserting that a perceived insult can justify a deadly response.

Study the topic of “taking offense” and you realize people are like tuning forks, ready to vibrate with indignation. So why do humans seem equipped with a thrumming tabulator, incessantly calculating whether we are getting proper due and deference?

We like to think we go through life as rational beings. Much of economic theory is based on the notion that humans make rational choices (which may mean that economists don’t get out much). In 1982, some economists came up with a little game to study negotiating strategies. The results showed that rationality is subservient to more powerful drives—and demonstrated why human beings so easily conclude they are being wronged. The idea of the “ultimatum game” is simple. Player A is given 20 $1 bills and told that, in order to keep any of the money, A must share it with Player B. If B accepts A’s offer, they both pocket whatever they’ve agreed to. If B rejects the offer, they both get nothing. Economists naturally expected the players to do the rational thing: A would offer the lowest possible amount—$1; and B, knowing $1 was more than zero, would accept. Ha!

In the years the game has been played, it’s been found that almost half the A’s immediately offer to split the money—an offer B’s accept. When A offers $9 or even $8, B usually says yes. But when A’s offer drops to $7, about half the B’s walk away. The lower A’s offer, the more likely the B’s are to turn their backs on a few free dollars in favor of a more satisfying outcome: punishing the person who offended their sense of fairness. This impulse is not illogical; it is essential. In Descartes’ Error, neurologist Antonio Damasio shows that humans who behave purely rationally are brain-damaged. Patients who have suffered injury to the areas in the brain that control emotion, but who retain their intellectual abilities, end up acting in socially aberrant ways.

Since the 1990s, building on the work of E.O. Wilson, father of sociobiology, a disparate band of researchers, from psychologists to zoologists, have been studying the origin and expression of moral emotions—our instinctive feelings of right and wrong. They say Homo sapiens did not invent morality; instead, we come equipped with it. Yes, we have to teach our children accepted rules of conduct and proper character. But Marc Hauser, a professor of psychology at Harvard, argues that they are readily able to learn because a moral template is already there, just as linguists believe children quickly pick up speech because they are born with intrinsic language-learning ability.

A paradox of human life is that the evolutionary forces that have made us cooperative and empathetic are the same ones that have made us prickly and explosive. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is a leading theorist in the field of moral psychology. He says the paired emotions of gratitude and vengeance helped us become the ultrasocial, ultrasuccessful species that we are. Gratitude allows us to expand our social network and recruit new allies; vengeance makes sure our new friends don’t take advantage of us.

You could say our lives as social beings are ruled by the three R’s: respect—the sense that proper deference has been paid to our status, reputation—the carefully maintained perception of our qualities, and reciprocity—the belief that our actions are responded to fairly.In other words, high school may be the most perfect recapitulation of the evolutionary pressures that shaped us as a species. Or politics. In a Washington Post article about John McCain’s legendary temper, McCain acknowledged, “I’ve been known to forget occasionally the discretion expected of a person of my many years and station when I believe I’ve been accorded a lack of respect I did not deserve” (italics added).

For centuries, humans have believed that behaving morally required us to transcend our natures. According to 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, we are solitary savages; 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau saw us as solitary nobles. They were both wrong, say the new theorists. If being solitary was our essential condition, writes Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal in Primates and Philosophers, then solitary confinement would not be the most extreme punishment available short of the death penalty. De Waal writes: “[D]escended from highly social ancestors—a long line of monkeys and apes—we have been group-living forever. Free and equal people never existed. Humans started out—if a starting point is discernible at all—as interdependent, bonded, and unequal.”

Evolutionary biologist Dario Maestripieri calls the ability of macaque monkeys to monitor and maintain their social stature “Macachiavellian intelligence.” Falling down in the social order can be deadly, he writes. The lowest macaques live on the edge of the group’s territory, where they are bait for predators; they eat leftovers after the more powerful have had their fill; they have furtive sex when the dominants aren’t looking. He argues it was the need to be ever vigilant to social nuance that was a driving force behind the leap in intelligence humans made.

It takes huge amounts of cognitive computing power just to keep track of who’s doing what to whom and what that means to you. Back in the day, oh, 70,000 or so years ago, we couldn’t just offload all this data processing to Facebook’s algorithms. Around that time, some scholars think, the greatest advance in the ability to keep tabs on social standing happened: Humans acquired language.

Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesisabout the theory that language allowed humans to replace grooming with gossip. “[O]nce people began gossiping, there was a runaway competition to master the arts of social manipulation, relationship aggression, and reputation management, all of which require yet more brain power.” In other words, we may be less man-the-toolmaker, than man-the-offense-taker.

At a comedy club I was at once, a mild-looking woman stepped up to the mike and opened with “It’s a good thing I don’t own a gun, because I would shoot everybody.” She got a laugh because everyone understood the desire to respond to daily insults—a rude store clerk, an aggressive driver, a disparaging co-worker—with extreme prejudice.

Paul Bloom writes in Descartes’ Baby of the successful social animal, “It has to live in stable groups, and must be able to recognize distinct individuals, monitor those individuals’ behavior, keep track of the cheaters, and adjust its own behaviors later on so as to punish them.” This ability to judge how fairly others are behaving emerges well before humans master language. This study in Nature by Yale psychologists J. Kiley Hamlin, Karen Wynn, and Bloom found that groups of 6-month- and 10-month-old babies watching a film could not only distinguish between characters that either helped or hindered a wooden character that was stuck, but that virtually all the babies, when given the chance, reached for the helper, not the hinderer. (Watch a video here.)

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, directors of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at UC-Santa Barbara, have done experiments showing that when people play a game of logic—they are given a set of abstract rules and asked to select the correct cards based on the rules—most players can’t figure it out. But when the rules are restated—they are told the game is about detecting violations of the legal drinking age, and the cards represent people at a bar—the majority of players can quickly solve the problem. Experiments such as this, writes neuropsychologist Michael Gazzaniga in Human, show that we have a finely developed ability to detect those who cheat in social exchanges.

Being on the alert for scoundrels is exhausting, and confronting those who violate social rules is potentially dangerous. But humans feel compelled to do it because without vigilance, fairness and cooperation break down. Gazzaniga cites experiments that show that individuals who take the risk of punishing cheaters enhance their own reputation within a group. (Here’s a real-life example.)

Humans’ sense of indignation is not just limited to violations against us. Even if you’re able-bodied, think of how offended you feel when you see another able-bodied person pull into a handicapped parking spot. Most of us will just walk on, quietly irate, but a few will yell at the driver. These moral enforcers are vital to society. Frans de Waal writes that experiments with macaques show that if you remove the individuals who perform this policing function, hostilities increase among the entire band.

According to researchers, calibrating our responses to social interactions usually occurs below our conscious awareness. Yale psychologist John Bargh says getting on with life would be unmanageable if we didn’t have a constantly running, under-the-surface sense of how to respond to situations. In his experiments, Bargh has shown that many of our social judgments and actions are automatic, and after the fact our brains make up a justification. For example, he and colleagues flashed synonyms for rudeness or politeness at two groups of subjects at speeds faster than could be consciously registered. Later, the subjects were deliberately left to wait, ignored while the person who conducted the experiment engaged in a conversation. The people primed by the rude words interrupted at a rate more than three times that of the people primed for politeness.

We also are subject to a powerful need to mirror others. Bloom writes that this emerges on the first day of life—stick out your tongue at a newborn, and the infant is likely to stick its out in response. This imitative impulse lays the groundwork for empathy. But it also means that when someone confronts us with a nasty tone, we can end up mimicking it without even meaning to.

Across cultures, the traditional moral disciplinarian has been religion. Many of the researchers studying the origins of human moral emotions and behaviors say religion does not create morality; it is building on pre-existing patterns. University of Cambridge scientist Robert Hinde notes in Why Gods Persist that every human society has a code of conduct, and that code is usually “legitimated, purveyed, and stabilised by the religious system.” Both Hinde and Haidt warn of the dangers of believing that new research on evolutionary morality means science has made religion obsolete. Haidt writes that natural selection must have “favored the success of individuals and groups that found ways (genetic or cultural or both) to use these gods to their advantage, for example as commitment devices that enhanced cooperation, trust, and mutual aid.”

Most religions offer precepts that seek to dampen our touchy, selfish side. Confucius was asked, “Is there one word that can serve as a principle of conduct for life?” He replied, “It is the word ‘shu’—reciprocity.” Leviticus says, “Love your fellow as yourself.” And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke the Golden Rule: “So in everything do unto others what you would have them do to you.” But a recurring source of offense is that while people can easily live with the fact that they fall short on “doing unto others,” they often find it intolerable when others are not properly doing unto them.

Humans have superb abilities to evaluate the defects of everyone else. The glitch, Haidt says, is that we’re blind to our own flaws. He points out that Jesus used this very metaphor when he said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Haidt says we think that our perception of events is the objective truth, while everyone else’s version is deluded by their self-interest.

It is at the intersection between the urge for cooperation and desire for self-interest that we experience so much internal turmoil and external conflict. Observing how others handle this balance has a great deal to do with how we judge their trustworthiness and their fitness. The presidential candidates present us with two stark leadership approaches: the cool, slow-to-anger reserve of Barack Obama; and the aggressive, man-of-honor style of John McCain. People instinctively weigh whether a leader who’s laid back makes them worry that he won’t stand up to enemies. And they consider that a hot-headed leader may be intimidating to foes, but that he also might create more of them.

Since the rest of us don’t have a legion of advisers trying to help us calibrate our response to daily hostilities, is there a way for us to turn off the radar that’s constantly scanning for offense? Not really. Being tuned in to the social clues around us is necessary. What we can work at is dialing down our response. Haidt advises that being aware of the forces that shaped and shape us can help us from letting them get the better of us.

“Once we’re angry, irritated, we become prosecutors, and our reasoning gets hijacked by our need to build our own case,” he says. So he suggests we can stop the prosecution by making even a small gesture of conciliation. We don’t have to acknowledge we are wholly in the wrong, but changing our tone, conceding we shouldn’t have said something, or said it in such a way, can trigger the reciprocity impulse in our opponent.

Some researchers recommend that when it comes to feeling offended, we could benefit from becoming a little bit Buddhist. Stephanie Preston, head of the University of Michigan’s Ecological Neuroscience Lab, says: “The more attached you are to your sense of self, the more you see forces trying to attack that self. If you have a more Buddhist view, and are less attached to self, you are less likely to see offense.”

Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron illustrates this in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty. She retells the parable of a man in a boat enjoying the serenity of the river at dusk. He sees another boat coming his way and is glad that someone else is sharing his pleasure.Then he realizes the other boat is heading toward him. He starts yelling to the boatman to turn aside, but the vessel just keeps coming faster and faster. “By this time he’s standing up in his boat, screaming and shaking his fist, and then the boat smashes right into him. He sees that it’s an empty boat. This is the classic story of our whole life situation. There are a lot of empty boats out there.”

Emily Yoffe received research support for this article from a Templeton-Cambridge journalism fellowship in science and religion.