Study the topic of "taking offense" and you realize people are like tuning forks, ready to vibrate with indignation. So why do humans seem equipped with a thrumming tabulator, incessantly calculating whether we are getting proper due and deference?
Since the 1990s, building on the work of E.O. Wilson, father of sociobiology, a disparate band of researchers, from psychologists to zoologists, have been studying the origin and expression of moral emotions—our instinctive feelings of right and wrong.
They say Homo sapiens did not invent morality; instead, we come equipped with it. Yes, we have to teach our children accepted rules of conduct and proper character. But Marc Hauser, a professor of psychology at Harvard, argues that they are readily able to learn because a moral template is already there, just as linguists believe children quickly pick up speech because they are born with intrinsic language-learning ability.
A paradox of human life is that the evolutionary forces that have made us cooperative and empathetic are the same ones that have made us prickly and explosive. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, is a leading theorist in the field of moral psychology. He says the paired emotions of gratitude and vengeance helped us become the ultrasocial, ultrasuccessful species that we are. Gratitude allows us to expand our social network and recruit new allies; vengeance makes sure our new friends don't take advantage of us.
You could say our lives as social beings are ruled by the three R's: respect—the sense that proper deference has been paid to our status, reputation—the carefully maintained perception of our qualities, and reciprocity—the belief that our actions are responded to fairly. In other words, high school may be the most perfect recapitulation of the evolutionary pressures that shaped us as a species.