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Why Do We Get Offended? The Evolutionary Functions

Why do we get offended? Why do we feel outraged and the need to express our outrage at others. Why do we get offended for others, even when something that has happened has no direct impact on our own lives or survival?

Those were some of the questions raised in the latest episode of the podcast.

During that episode, we spoke to a range of experts about offence, but one of those people was Prof Stephanie Preston from the University of Michigan.

As a psychologist and ecological neuroscientist, her research is focused on trying to understand why we have certain behaviours. Why have they evolved in us as humans and what are the functions they serve.

The Evolutionary Basis For Why We Get Offended


She claimed that there is significant research in evolution and psychology that would suggest that being offended is a way of revolting against cheaters.

Cooperation and collaboration between people in your tribe, was and is required for survival and protection.

If somebody breaks that trust or agreement, then there is a threat to the survival of the group. That threat must be dealt with for the benefit of all.

She comments that “worst case scenario is I cooperate and you defect and you get away with all the goods and I was trying to be nice and fair and kind and I got the losing end of the stick.”.

Offence from a evolutionary perspective, is linked to survival, not just being overly sensitive. Taking offence can lead to others taking corrective action in the group, so that it doesn’t continue to occur and put the survival of the group at risk.

She comments:

“So being offended is a way of emotionally punishing someone for what you see is a violation of the contract of us collaborating, cooperating and existing in a collective together.”

Third Party Offence

Prof Preston also explained that this is one of the reasons why we get offended for others. Third Party Offence is expressing outrage at the actions of others against a victim.

From a survival point of view if someone is stealing someone else’s food, we know that could translate into a risk for all in the tribe. So the tribe bounds together and shames someone for their actions, to prevent them from continuing to present a potential risk for everybody in the future.

It may not have directly happened to us, but we see it’s potential future risk and wish to eliminate it.

Social Exclusion

Prof Preston also explained that how offending many in your tribe on a continual basis, or for doing something so heinous that you will find yourself excluded.

She noted that social exclusion is one of the most traumatic and painful experience a human can have. The feelings that social exclusion illicit are controlled by the same part of your brain that responds to physical pain. People who find themselves excluded can experience that anxiety very physically and viscerally.

When monkeys are socially excluded from their group, the protection of that tribe is lost along with any shared resources, like food, too. Monkeys that are excluded are easier picked off by predators and have less access to food and resources that will keep them alive.

Causing offence and being excluded can put a significant risk on your ability to survive and we are seeing that now in modern life too.

Alleged abusers that have caused so much outrage and offence have been forced out of their positions of power. They have been forced out of their jobs by an outraged tribe, which provided them with their income and resources to survive.

So certain parallels can be drawn between those evolutionary reasons and function of being offended with situations we are seeing today.

However that’s not the entire story as to why do we get offended and if you’d like to discover more, you can listen to the entire episode on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and wherever you get your podcast from. Just search for Project 10.

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