THE OBSERVATION My main point is in the title: I have found that when I consciously learn "with a vengeance", aiming to avenge whatever I lost because I have not learnt the thing earlier, I learn markedly better. I feel more motivated to learn, and recall seems clearly better. (I have not formally compared recall before and after, this is subjective judgement but I'm very confident.)

I have experimented with this for about 2 weeks. So far the effect does not seem to diminish; if there is any change at all, it is maybe getting slightly stronger.

Subjectively, this changes my failures from something to mourn or to be embarrassed about, into "something to be avenged" which is a driving motivation. It feels like I'm owning my mistakes more readily. I acknowledge them more readily and am more comfortable thinking and talking about them. And the learning from them feels something like gleeful, justified or gloating - definitely more powerful and satisfying.

I would like some of you to try this, and to report back whether this works for you too, because I have never heard anyone else talk about consciously trying to do this, so it might be new, and it helps me a lot so if it helps others too, it seems potentially extremely useful.

THE NARRATIVE I was having a great argument about God with a very good friend who is a sophisticated theologian, and who pointed me to a podcast with the German theologian Siegfried Zimmer. Zimmer was talking about theodicy, the classic problem of theism where an almighty, all-knowing, all-good God seems impossible to square with the pointless suffering we observe. He did not have a satisfactory answer, he did manage to admit that, he did not manage to draw the obvious conclusion, so nothing new there. But in his argument he gave a really interesting reason to discard all the usual theistic answers. He said an answer to suffering is only good if you can say it to someone who is intensely and pointlessly suffering, to his or her face, and find it helps.

I was very impressed with this idea and concluded that as an atheist, I did not have an answer that would fulfil this criterion. So I thought about it. What do I say to someone dying in a concentration camp, from the other side of the fence, utterly unable to save them? To a kid dying of cancer? To the grieving parents of victims of a school shooting?

Naturally, as you do, I thought back to the Star Trek parody "Galaxy Quest". The single best scene in the movie is this:

This scene stands out from the rest of the movie because of its utter sincerity. That is the point: the same character has been saying the same line insincerely for many years and is completely sick of it, but he recognises that in this particular situation it is the best thing he could possibly say: "You shall be avenged."

In the concentration camp scenario, if I imagine myself on either side of the fence, I really think that would help. "We can't save you, but we will avenge you." Yeah. That rings good.

And I find this easily generalizes into situations where there isn't a human perpetrator to be punished. The project of eradicating Malaria just feels more viscerally awesome when I frame it as the spiteful, relishing, merciless, victorious extermination of the terrible monster that has, by some estimates, killed around 10% of all humans who have ever lived.

And it works for small things just as well. I paid too much for an item? I avenge the lost money by buying more carefully next time - and I find I actually do remember to do it next time. I lost time because of a scheduling mistake? I avenge it by scheduling better - and my scheduling improves faster than it used to. And so on.

REASONS THIS MIGHT WORK FOR YOU TOO Now even if you believe this is true for me, you might still think I'm just a particularly vengeful person and I've discovered and integrated that part of myself so I'm feeling more complete and this explains everything about me while not saying anything about you because you're not a naturally vengeful person. I will now attempt to convince you that you too are, and should be, vengeful.

First of all, my aforementioned friend says this works for him too. That's two out of two people who have been familiar with this idea.

You're a primate, and primates are vengeful. In fact one of the things that distinguishes humans from other primates is that we avenge more - we punish not just violators of norms, but also individuals who fail to punish violators of norms.

Vengeance is more or less taboo in polite society. This taboo was installed for good reasons, because our biases can easily lead vengeance into Cycles of Revenge, where the punishment gets punished recursively. This has slowed the development of, and destroyed, many human societies. But still, it is another taboo and it makes it hard to think about the matter clearly like all taboos do. So if like me, you didn't think about utilizing human vengefulness for good, this may very well have been because of the taboo, not because of a rational weighing of the pros and cons. Apart from the Cycle of Revenge thing, which is huge of course, I am currently unaware of any cons.

An endorsement of revenge is not automatically also an endorsement of violence. Statements like "the best vengeance is to live a great life" do not include a call to violence, but they very much do harness vengefulness.

It is, however, an endorsement of aggression, of acting aggressively. Looking for drawbacks, we might point out aggression raises blood pressure and cortisol, and too much of either isn't healthy. On the other hand, too little aggression is probably not healthy either - it is a hallmark of depression. I know many more people who suffer from lack of motivation than people who suffer from too much motivation - and for these people, vengeance is a form of motivation worth exploiting.


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I think I did experience something like that. When learning new skills to change positions, I found myself eager to learn even after a long and tiring day or week if I concentrated on my dissatisfaction with the job I had that time. When contemplating about the phenomenon I kind of described it how a Sith is supposed to work, using his negative emotions to channel energy into the task. And indeed, by using this "passion" to "gain strength/power", I did "gain victory", so it worked out, as the Sith code preaches:)


Slightly off topic, but I like how user "chaosmage" made this post about using "Vengeance". I wonder if this can be classified as a case for Nominative Determinism.

I like the thought behind this. You've hit on something I think is important for being productive: if thinking about the alternative makes you want to punch through a wall, that's great, and you should try to make yourself feel that way. I do a similar thing, but more toward general goal-accomplishment; if I have an objective in sight that I'm heavily attracted to, I identify every possible obstacle to the end (essentially murphyjitsu'ing), and then I cultivate a driving, vengeful rage toward each specific obstacle, on top of what motivation I already had toward the end goal. It works reasonably well for most things, but is by far the most effective on pure internal tasks like editing out cognitive biases or undesired beliefs, because raw motivation is just a much more absolute determinant of success in that domain. Learning is a mostly mental task, so this seems like a very strong application of the general principle to me.

On your question of how to respond to pointless suffering, though, I don't think your response would work for me at all. I'd just snap back, "well, what does it matter at that point?!". I think I actually prefer a Buddhist-ish angle on the issue, directly calling out the pointlessness of suffering per se (I'm nonreligious and agnostic myself, for the record). To paraphrase a quote I got from a friend of mine, "one who can accept anything never suffers". Pain is unavoidable, but perspective enables you to remain happy while in pain, by keeping whatever is not lost at the front of your mind. In your hypothetical scenario, I think I'd frame it something like, "Have your reasons for joy be ones that can never be taken from you." Does that ring right?

One failure mode esp. kids run into is anger at or revenge against uncaring things. Think: Stumbling over a rock and trying to take revenge on the rock. Chaosmage argues for something superficially similar: Stumbling over a rock and taking revenge by learning from the experience and making sure it doesn't happen again. Kind of taking revenge on all rocks. I think that's a distinction worth making clear: Take revenge on the abstract generalized problem.

Solve your Problems by Fantasizing sounds related. Maybe there is a common pattern? It mentions laziness, greed, and envy as generators of solutions.

Statements like "the best vengeance is to live a great life" do not include a call to violence, but they very much do harness vengefulness.

Sometimes deep wisdom makes best sense when interpreted in cultural context of other deep wisdom.

"The best vengeance is to live a great life."

"And what kind of life could be considered great, oh Wise One?"

"To scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters."

A lot of cultural wisdom is aimed to shift our time preference from short-term to long-term. (Delay gratification! Stop procrastinating!) The same pattern also applies to our attitude towards revenge.

Is revenge rational? Hurting your opponent, often getting hurt yourself in the process, doesn't seem like a utility increasing move on average. Mere thinking about revenge can already be harmful, by distracting you from your other tasks at hand. Therefore, many people conclude that vengeance must be irrational. 

That would of course make it a great mystery how such strong emotion could have evolved by natural selection. The answer, from the game-theoretical perspective, is that it is the precommitment to take revenge that provides an advantage. It discourages other actors from hurting you.

That does not imply that the right time for revenge is "right now". Well, it depends. If the situation is repetitive (such as being bullied at school, every day), each day of inaction signals that you are unlikely to take revenge, which is a bad thing. But if the damage is more of a "once in a lifetime" type, there is probably no need to hurry; the damage is done, it will not increase by taking your time. Realize that the voice the urges you to act soon (or to keep fantasizing about taking revenge all day) is the same voice that urges you to eat your marshmallow now.

What you should do instead, is... well, I guess as a reader of LW, you are probably familiar with the idea of "convergent goals". Amass resources; gain power; maximize your options. Then you will be in a much better position to take the revenge.

Every time you need some extra motivation to eat your vegetables, exercise, or log off the social networks, consider this: each step you take towards living a better life in general, each step on your way towards the convergent goals, increases your capabilities in general, which includes the option to take revenge for every grudge you have. Plus, you get everything else as a bonus. That is, literally, what a convergent goal means.

Miyamoto Musashi said: "The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy's cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this."

Directing your vengeance the proper way, understanding the concept of convergent goals on a visceral level, there is no longer a difference between taking revenge and living a great life. Every step you take towards a great life, simultaneously increases the probability of cutting your enemy, sometimes completely literally, at the end of a long causal chain. This is the timeless ancient wisdom of productive life.

-- Viliam the Psycho, All I Know About Serial Murder I Learned in Kindergarten

And this is the type of content I want to see more of in LW.

There is some association between vengeance and the just-world hypothesis. How does this resonate with you?

To me, this framing seems like it might be taking advantage of some human cognitive biases like loss aversion and attribution biases like the fundamental attribution error. It feels like a hack that exploits known bugs.

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