Don’t! A Prescription for Reducing Counterproductive Revenge


A list of what not to do about conflicts.




President Biden has been warning other countries to stay out of the conflict in the Middle East beyond what already exists. Implicit seems to be a threat that the United States will respond in kind if that happens.

Psychologically, there seem to be provocations that are likely to increase hostility and revenge, whether individually or more globally. The key is the degree of narcissism. At its core, threats to narcissism often elicit denial or finding some way to overcome the threat to self-esteem, especially when the narcissism is undue and self-esteem tenuous.

As we know clinically, narcissism is difficult to treat for the same reasons, as treatment threatens to the low self-esteem. Interpretations and reflections must be carefully crafted for acceptance.

Therefore, as we watch the hostilities emerge in the Middle East and elsewhere, there are certain “don’ts” that I would prescribe.

Don’t humiliate the other. Humiliation may be the most likely instigator for revenge and retaliation.

Don’t dehumanize anybody. In the current conflict, using terms like “animals” is actually likely to increase the behavior of concern.

Don’t deliberately make others desperate under threats of safety, security, and basic survival needs. Our automatic fight or flight response is designed to react until we can get more cognitive control.

Don’t favor punishment. Punishment is negative reinforcement, but intermittent positive reinforcement and praise is generally more effective.

Don’t fail to be empathetic. Try to understand the other to find solutions they will accept.

Don’t expect positive change quickly. Confirmation biases and ingrained values are slow to change.

Don’t fail to be compassionate. The innocent and those without enough power need compassionate understanding as their risks with rebellion are high.

Don’t be an innocent bystander. Probably all of us have some way to try to help the mental health of others as mental disturbances rise, ranging from interpersonal loving kindness to the “other,” to using our professional expertise whenever there is an opportunity to do so.

Perhaps you would prescribe something else or not prescribe anything in this fog of war. Let us know.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry, and is now in retirement and refirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.

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