GUEST POST: Is Revenge Part of Who We Are?

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

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2 thoughts on “GUEST POST: Is Revenge Part of Who We Are?

  1. Revenge is a dish best served cold (Klingon proverb). But its an incredibly powerful source of motivation. p.s. New tv show called Revenge, about a betrayed and scorned girl who returns as a young woman to take her vengeance. Count of Mone Cristo just popped into my head.

  2. Revenge does not even exclude lawyers. It is alive and well, within our judicial system. This has become increasingly apparent to me in this case. You are familiar with the court case of Anderson v. Anderson, before the Supreme Court of British Columbia at the present time. Parental support under s. 90 of the Family Relations Act is the issue. When the application was renewed in 2008, a study was being made to change the Family Relations Act. (a) Unbeknown to me the person that approved my application at Pro Bono Law/Access Justice, wore many hats. (b) He was also a lawyer that was representing two of my adult children in this parental maintenance case. (3) He was instrumental in writing and presenting the White Paper to the Attorney General’s office on two occasions. In which S. 90 of the Act would be eliminated. This case is the only case that stands in his way to get this legislation passed. He now has a purpose and a motive.
    This application was started in 2000. It was not considered contentious, and was heard by a Master. This interim order was set at $10.00 per month for each of my five adult children. In order to recover the arrears the application was renewed. Not all the defendants’ had complied with the Order. Two were in contempt of court for 10 years. They refused to get legal representation and would not provide full disclosure causing adjournments. He urged them to get legal representation as this was a very complex case and all litigates should be represented. They were ordered to pay the arrears into my lawyer’s office, as well as court fines. The judge then set peremptory date for the trial of the matter. However this was adjourn too, as a lawyer (not of record) steps up and tells the Judge that he will represent one of the defendants, but only and “if” the trial is adjourned. Granted. This new lawyer refuses to sign the Order. This action produced added costs to settle the Order. The “new” lawyer then proceeds to write to my lawyer that intends bring an application against me to post money as security costs.(2010) They (the lawyers) now what an Examination of Discovery,(114 days after the 3 August appearance)an about one month before the 5th scheduled trial date. The Rules of Court were not followed and fees were returned to them. On 19 September 2011 application heard, I was without legal representation. It ended with the Judge reserving the decision.
    On 9 June 2010 erroneous and unsubstantiated alleges were made by one of the litigants to a newspaper It then spread like wild fire to newspapers across Canada, television and the internet. The press have been relentless. Yesterday I was accosted in front of my apartment by a reporter and cameraman. While I was unlocking the door, the reporter pushed his way in, while the other held the door with his foot. I told them to “get out as this was private property and not to take my picture as I did not want to talk with them”. One of the other tenants in the building, came and told them to get out because I did not want to talk to them. They wanted a statement from him, and he told them he had nothing to say. They were not taking no for an answer, and had the owner of the restaurant below the apartments open the door. The reporter came up the stairs to my apartment and pounded on the door. I did not open the door but did yell that I was calling the R.C.M.P. While the police were attending the call, the emergency operator kept me on the line as she could hear me wheezing and was going to send the ambulance. I told her that it was not needed an ambulance as I had my medication. Upon arrival the police checked the restaurant and the reporter and cameraman were not there. The reporter then called my telephone and left a message for me to call. I wondered what part of “no” he doesn’t understand. The owner of the building was called and he in turn will call the restaurant owner in regards to opening that door. The locked door is for our security. This type of harassment has got to stop as I feel this is an invasion on my privacy.
    This is the second incident in two weeks that the R.C.M.P. attended to our apartment building. The last was a report there was a man on the roof. The police woke all of the tenants, and checked the building. No one was found and none of the tenants heard anything in the hallway or stairs.

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