Does Revenge Work? Our Minds on Vengeance

Inequality, privilege, and injustice blare from the headlines. When faced with an unjust world, how do you cope? Do you dwell on unfairness? Or do you stay out of the fray? This week, by request from Melissa in San Francisco, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals the surprising truth about how each of us is wired for justice and revenge.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #208
image of a voodoo doll symbolizing revenge

The answer to "does revenge make us feel better?" is a solid: it depends. Revenge works, but only for those who fit a certain profile.

Revenge and Sadism

According to a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, those who seek revenge tend to be less forgiving and tend to ruminate more about the offense. This makes sense—if you’re Inigo Montoya, obsessing about revenging your father’s death is going to be a major source of motivation. But fixation on slights and rejections is unpleasant and takes up a lot of bandwidth. Interestingly, those who seek revenge also tend to have lower life satisfaction, meaning there’s not a lot of perceived good in their life to absorb the blow of an offense. So far, not such a rosy picture.

But there’s more. Those who do get satisfaction from revenge tend to have higher negative affect about the offensein other words, they feel particularly hurt and angry. This part is important because people tend to exact revenge as an attempt at mood repair—to feel better. But as you might guess, this plan works most effectively in those who have a dash of sadism. For better or worse, vengeance feels best when you already find pleasure in inflicting pain and humiliation.

The Role of Scapegoating

What about for those of us that aren’t sadists? A lighter version of revenge is scapegoating, or singling out a person or group for undeserved blame.

Scapegoating can happen in the name of justice. For instance, a study out of the University of Kansas asked participants, all of whom identified as middle class, to read a fake news article titled “The Plight of Working Class Americans.” There were two versions of the article, however. Half the participants read one version, where blame was placed on the middle class, concluding, "...chasing the cheapest deals has benefited the pocketbooks of middle-class Americans while leading to severe unemployment and crippling wage stagnation among working-class Americans." In the second version, the article was exactly the same, but blamed the upper class, not the middle-class participants.

Next, all participants read a second article titled either "Illegal Immigrants Successful in Economic Slump," or "Illegal Immigrants Suffer in Economic Slump."

Then what happened? When participants thought someone elselike those upper-class schmuckswere responsible for injustice facing working class Americans, there was less moral outrage at illegal immigrants, whether or not they were portrayed as successful.

But when participants thought their own middle-class group was to blame for injustice and illegal immigrants were portrayed as successful, they expressed more moral outrage at the immigrants.

As for revenge, don’t bother getting down in the mud—let karma do your work for you.

In other words, participants felt outraged at the injustice faced by the working class, but it wasn’t necessarily a desire to restore justice. Instead, the researchers concluded, blaming the immigrants helped relieve guilt and shore up participants’ moral self-image.

The Bottom Line on Revenge

Okay, let’s wrap this all up. First, should we get revenge? Will we feel better? Probably not, unless we find vengeance pleasant, which gives rise to its own concerns.

Second, we can take the temperature of our moral outrage to see if it’s a genuine concern or, like the middle-class experiment, more a way to make ourselves feel less guilty and reinforce our view of ourselves as good people.

Finally, is it a problem to feel moral outrage? Or does it just mean we’re finely tuned to fairness? Remember I promised we’d circle back to justice sensitivity. Well, in a nutshell, being extra sensitive to slights can be seen as egotistical and, at the extreme, even antisocial, but outrage on behalf of others is linked to being cooperative and helpful.

So go ahead and rage against the machine, so long as it’s on behalf of others. As for revenge, don’t bother getting down in the mudlet karma do your work for you.

Image of a voodoo doll © Shutterstock


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