Ohio State professor Matthew Grizzard is the lead researcher on a study examining human responses to retribution and forgiveness. Credit: Mary Kidwell | For The Lantern

An eye for an eye might be easier than turning the other cheek, according to new Ohio State research on human cognitive processing.

Research published in Sage Journals in December by Ohio State professor Matthew Grizzard and graduate student C. Joseph Francemone found that humans have a gut-level instinct to respond with retribution, but forgiveness in humans is learned. Grizzard and Francemone collaborated with the State University of New York at Buffalo, Texas A&M University-Texarkana and Culture by Numbers, a computer software development company.  

Grizzard, the study’s leading researcher, said participants read different scenarios and assessed whether they liked or disliked varying retribution endings — underretribution, equitable retribution or overretribution. The researchers then measured the participants’ response rates between reading the scenario and narrative ending to decide whether they liked or disliked the ending. 

“It just measures response rates … and so we are just asking them to press like or dislike as quick — basically as soon as they’ve made a decision,” Grizzard said. 

After choosing whether they liked or disliked an ending to the given scenario, Grizzard said participants were asked to rate more complex emotional responses using Likert scales from strongly agree to strongly disagree to note their fondness of aspects of the story, such as the fun or enjoyment of a story and its thought-provoking nature. 

After collecting data, Francemone said it was challenging to determine how to display the data.

“It’s definitely interpretation and figuring out the easiest way to convey what we found,” Francemone said.  

Grizzard said the idea for the study began a year prior to data collection in spring 2017, when he was leading a graduate class at the University at Buffalo that explored research regarding media entertainment and the narratives humans enjoy. 

“We were curious about whether or not that original study — they just measured liking. They didn’t measure pleasure versus appreciation and things like that, so we were curious if that would hold up, and if we could kinda separate this liking response into more pleasurable responses or these more contemplative, meaningful, thought-provoking responses,” Grizzard said.

Francemone said the study has the potential to impact society as a whole. 

“I think that it demonstrates how different stories are perceived by different people in society and what that kind of means,” Francemone said. “When we see those meaningful, thought-provoking stories, we generally kind of let go of our innate desire to see this punishment or vengeance kind of idea.” 

Grizzard said the research could help understand the human preference for emotions such as punishment and reconciliation.

“There’s a couple of things that I think it could help us understand better and so one is just kind of people’s innate preferences for vengeance versus forgiveness,” Grizzard said. “That could be important for criminal justice reform, helping us understand the extent to which we like punishment, we like vengeance, we like — and how do we foster a liking for forgiveness or reconciliation?” 

In terms of the short-term impact of the study, Grizzard said it showed that judgments of the media are reflective. 

“That can be useful because it can help us not only identify how we’re making judgments in the real world by isolating them in these kind of really carefully controlled experiments and things like that, but we can also indicate that we can use media as a tool to kind of understand how people might be making these judgments,” Grizzard said.