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Presidentiality: ‘Revenge!’

“Presidentiality” is a weekly web series with Need to Know correspondent Win Rosenfeld that dissects what the candidates are saying, doing and promising on the campaign trail. Each week, “Presidentiality” deconstructs their rhetoric through the lenses of historical precedent, economic theory and science.

When Texas Gov. Rick Perry debuted as a Republican presidential candidate in his first nationally televised debate two weeks ago, he and his rivals tangled over some of the campaign’s most defining issues. There were flare-ups over health care, jobs and immigration, and Perry stumbled notably when he seemed to suggest that Social Security was both unconstitutional and “a Ponzi scheme.”

For the most part, the debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., was a staid affair. But toward the end of the debate, something odd happened: Moderator Brian Williams asked Perry about his record of overseeing more executions, by far, than any other governor in the country. And before Williams could even finish his question, the audience went up in raucous cheers, reacting apparently to the mere mention of how many felons had been put to death during Perry’s tenure.

Later, Williams asked Perry about the response. “What do you make of that dynamic just happened here, the mention of the execution of 234 people drew applause?” To that, Perry responded, “I think Americans understand justice.”

It is, of course, not surprising that Republican crowds would favor the death penalty. But their enthusiasm was striking. Regardless of its effectiveness as a deterrent against crime, the death penalty seems to arouse passions on both sides. Why? Why, at a time when more than 14 million people are unemployed and policymakers are struggling to cut the nation’s spiraling deficit, would people reserve their loudest applause for the death penalty, of all things?

To find out, “Presidentiality” combed through the annals of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. We wanted to answer the question: What is it about the death penalty that gets people so riled up? As it turns out, our feelings about this issue may be hardwired into our brains by thousands of years of evolution. There’s a biological reason, it seems, that revenge is so sweet.