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

The state of the universe.
Oct. 17 2008 7:19 AM

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

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.
Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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.

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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).

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