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

Listener Melissa writes from San Francisco, "I struggle with letting go of any kind of injustice. Whether it's on the national level such as the unfair treatment of minorities, or something as small as another customer skipping me in line at the store, I really tend to dwell on this wrongdoing." She points out that even though human brains often wander to thoughts of revenge, she doesn’t think she would derive much satisfaction from it. She asked me to riff on injustice and revenge, with a goal of understanding herself (and her fellow humans) a little better.

What Is Justice Sensitivity?

As it turns out, Melissa is not alone in her struggle to let go of injustice, inequity, or unfairness. In fact, it’s a personality trait called justice sensitivity, defined as our awareness of and reactivity to injustice. In other words, it’s how finely tuned our antennae are to corruption, inequality, unfairness, and generally getting screwed.

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The 4 Kinds of Justice Sensitivity

In fact, there are four different types of justice sensitivity.

  1. The first is called victim justice sensitivity, which is constantly staying on the lookout to make sure we don’t get screwed. This vigilance often goes along with anger and a tendency towards revenge.
  2. Next is observer justice sensitivity, which is outrage when observing unfair treatment of others without being directly involved. A recent example of this was the outpouring of protest at the American government on behalf of immigrant families who were being separated at the border. 
  3. Third is perpetrator justice sensitivity, which is an inclination to punish oneself for unjust behaviors in order to assuage guilt or make things right. For example, a Utah man named Reggie Shaw, who was responsible for two deaths in a texting-while-driving accident, has traveled the country ever since speaking out against distracted driving.
  4. Last is beneficiary justice sensitivity, where we experience situations in which we benefit from injustice as aversive. For example, Benedict Cumberbatch made headlines when he announced he would only join projects where his female co-stars received equal pay. 

The important difference among all these types of justice sensitivity is that the first, victim sensitivity, is focused on the self, whereas the other types are focused on others. We’ll circle back to this, so hold tight.

Now, while injustice resonates a little deeper or a little shallower with each of us, all of us have a sense of it. It’s inborn.

The Innate Sense of Justice in Humans

To illustrate, a study out of the University of Washington, using eye-tracking technology, found that 15-month-old toddlers looked longer at a video in which two people were given an unequal distribution of milk and crackers, versus a video in which the people received equal portions of milk and crackers. Measuring how long babies fixate on a scene is a proven method for working with study participants who can’t yet talk. They gaze longer when things are unexpected, nonsensical, or, it turns out, when events violate the rules of equality.

But wait—toddlers’ sense of justice is even more complex. Turns out toddlers are also attuned to the concept of equal pay for equal work. A study in the journal Psychological Science had 21-month-olds watch a live scene where two lab assistants were told, “If you put the toys away, you can have a sticker!” Then, one of two things happens. Either both the assistants clean the toys up equally and each earns a sticker—a clear example of proportional rewards; or, one cleans while the other slacks off and keeps playing, but once the toys are all put away, they each get a sticker—a clear example of inequitable reward. The 21-month-olds looked significantly longer at the unequal scene—a finding that the researchers interpreted to mean they were not okay with the slacker getting rewarded.

Whether this means that a sense of justice is hardwired or that we learn the rules of society before our second birthdays, it’s clear that even before they can explain themselves, babies can spot when someone gets the shaft.

So, Does Revenge Work?

This brings us to Melissa’s question about revenge. Does it work? Should we make like Demi Lovato and get revenge while looking like a ten? If your name is Earl, should you watch your back for The Dixie Chicks?

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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