Revenge is an integral part of the human experience. From the book of Exodus in the Bible, where “eye for an eye” justice prevailed, to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to the vendettas or blood feuds of the mafia, the concept of revenge has long been intertwined with our beliefs about justice. Not everyone believes revenge solves any problems, but in terms of forensic psychology, why do some people still pursue the ancient justice of “getting even” while others “live and let live”? The answer may surprise you.
Whether you call it revenge, retribution, vengeance, or payback, the idea remains the same. We turn to revenge to seek recompense for being wronged. Anthropologists theorize revenge goes back to our earliest days as a primitive sense of justice. The infliction of pain or loss equal to what we endured strikes at the heart of our experience, the overwhelming desire to right the wrongs in our lives.
Dr. Susan Whitbourne identifies three components of why we seek revenge. The first concept, equity, describes the ideal of balance and fairness we want in our relationships with others. Many people intellectually realize that complete equitability in all areas of life is futile (think about your relationship with your boss), but when slighted by a spouse or coworker we seek to “even the score.” Quite often, that gut-level reaction provokes us to exact a far greater cost from our offender than the original offense. Our reaction sparks retaliation from the original offender, and the cycle of revenge continues indefinitely if unchecked.
Whitbourne’s second reason we seek revenge is a physical or psychological threat to our identity. When a part of our identity (whether gender, ethnicity, or nationality) comes into question or under attack we seek to right the wrong by striking back to protect ourselves. The most commonly cited example of a schoolyard fight involves two boys (or girls) defending their identities against perceptions of inferiority or weakness. In our adult lives, this plays out when we turn our anger against a common foe, as seen in the response of many Americans after the September 11th attacks. In this mode, revenge can take on a far greater scope and even serve as a unifying force.
Betrayal is the final reason we take revenge. When we feel wronged by another person or institution, the instinct to strike back and hurt our antagonist takes charge. We see this dynamic acted out repeatedly when wives destroy the property of their unfaithful husbands, unsatisfied diners post a negative review of a restaurant when they receive poor service, or customers feel scammed when refused a refund for poorly made merchandise.
Shakespeare even devoted one of his best-known plays to betrayal. Joanna Byles provides a fascinating analysis of Hamlet, and the fundamental motivation of the eponymous character. Using Freudian psychoanalysis, Byles illuminates that like many of us Hamlet is driven by an inherent and deeply seated need for justice, a need we seek to fulfill through revenge. In Hamlet Shakespeare holds a mirror to our darker urges in an effort to show us how Hamlet’s desire to avenge the wrongs done him ultimately leads to ruin.
If there is a primal need for revenge, what impels some to seek it and others to turn away? The two limiting factors on whether we enact revenge are surprisingly obvious. Pragmatism comes first: if we can’t see a practical or material gain from revenge, chances are we won’t pursue it. The second reason affects us if a group opposes us morally or ethically. The Count of Monte Cristo aside, it turns out the desire for retribution doesn’t stand a chance if we’ll suffer greater mental or physical costs in carrying it out.
Revenge can’t be attributed to any positive emotional gains. At the core, anger drives revenge, and while it may feel good at the time, studies show both parties suffer from anger’s effects. As the saying goes, “anger is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” So the next time you look for justice, consider a route other than revenge, for your own sake if nothing else!
Author ALLISON GAMBLE has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing with forensicpsychology.net