Resentment, Grievance, Bitterness

Emotions impact decision making. Normative decision making models struggle to internalize this impact. Resentment, grievance, and bitterness are similar to each other, but different  enough for me to include them all.  They are low grade long term emotions that seem dysfunctional for those who carry them, but maybe functional at some level to encourage us to treat others better.

According to Wikipedia resentment is a complex, multilayered emotion that has been described as a mixture of disappointment, disgust, anger, and fear. You can feel resentment directly toward a person or group for how they mistreated you or you can feel resentment toward a person or group because they have been treated better by others or seem better in some way than you. Grievance somehow seems more specific, while bitterness seems more general and resigned. Resentment is anger’s passive aggressive brother.

In 2022, resentment seems to be driving all sorts of decision making all over the world.    Vladimir Putin declares war on Ukraine. Millions of people suddenly do not want to get vaccinated and millions of others believe an election was stolen without evidence.

I have felt resentment directed toward me only a few times (I tend to be clueless about such things.) and it was when I thought I was in the tribe. If you are in the group, then people celebrate good things that happen to you as also happening to them.  Clearly, you can be in the traditional family and be part of the other and be resented. Your family members may perceive that the generous actions you take toward them are more duty bound than a personal endorsement. If you are to avoid such resentment, you need to commiserate and socialize to a degree that may be uncomfortable. You have to decide whether it is possible to avoid resentment and whether or not avoiding resentment is worth it. This probably goes for countries, too.

I have blamed certain politicians for their cynical promises, but looking back I have acted similarly. Such actions can generate resentment. Legalized gambling strikes me as an example. I have looked at it as a way to get others to pay taxes, that I will not have to pay, of their own free will. The reality is that the government and business will then promote gambling as a desirable activity while ignoring the reality that gambling is a zero sum game made into a less than zero sum game by the government and business. Some people who are more gullible will not see that the numbers give them little chance. Others may even rightfully believe that it is a better chance than they get in the society at large.  It is easy to see this creating a resentment machine.

This makes me think of Ted Robert Gurr  and his book Why Men Rebel (See post Why Men Rebel) The book was written on the psychological assumption that political violence originates as a non-rational reaction to frustration. In retrospect, he thinks it was a mistake to suggest that people who react violently to their sense of injustice are non-rational. Instead, one should focus on the identities, grievances, and objectives of people who initiate political action and ask, critically, whether and how their actions contribute to the attainment of their goals.”

Two of the points that he suggests  should be kept in mind when seeking to understand and respond to popular discontents and today’s resentment, I find to be persuasive:

  •  Begin by examining the group identities and grievances of disadvantaged people, including the poor, underemployed urban youth, and members of ethnic, national, and religious minorities.
  •   Understand the sources of people’s grievances by examining their status and their treatment by governments and by other groups. Listen to what people say, not just what others say about them.

Gurr used the concept of relative deprivation to explain why men rebel. He suggested that relative deprivation led to resentment which eventually could lead to rebellion. In the paper: “Predicting self-rated mental and physical health: the contributions of subjective socioeconomic status and personal relative deprivation,” that appeared in Front. Psychol., 22 September 2015 authored by Mitchell J. Callan, Hyunji Kim, and William J. Matthews, it was concluded that higher perceived personal relative deprivation related to poorer health. This certainly points to resentment leading to poor results.

Personal relative deprivation refers to resentment stemming from the belief that one is deprived of a desired and deserved outcome compared to similar others. Subjective socioeconomic status is more of a cognitive idea while relative deprivation digs up emotion.

So you can resent someone at work or a family member, when you both have the same socioeconomic status, for whatever reasons you may choose. Maybe they have a cooler hobby or people like them more. You can resent them on whatever level you like and carrying this around with you is stressful and impacts your health and likely contributes to worse decision making.

Thomas B Edsall’s December 9, 2020, New York Times column: “The Resentment that Never Sleeps”, gathers some explanations of resentment in our world. Herbert Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke wrote, “the downfall of the working class over the last thirty years is not just a question of its numerical shrinkage, its political disorganization and stagnating wages. It also signifies a loss of status.” The political consequences are evident and can be seen in the aftermath of the defeat of President Trump:  Those who cannot adopt or compete in the dominant status order — closely associated with the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of complex cultural performances — make opposition to this order a badge of pride and recognition. The proliferation of conspiracy theories is an indicator of this process. People make themselves believe in them, because it induces them into an alternative world of status and rank.  This augmentation of social division becomes particularly virulent when it features no longer just a clash between high and low status groups in what is still commonly understood as a unified status order, but if each side produces its own status hierarchies with their own values.

Resentment shares something with the concept of terrorism. If you cannot hope to win within the framework of the competition or any alternative competition, you strike at the edges and try to create a narrative that elevates your status even if it harms you more than those you strike. This is force that I could never have imagined was a major decision making influence. Unfortunately, if you look at the world as a zero sum game, those you resent must be wrong and it seems that we are willing to alter our decision making accordingly.