Recently, the news has been full of popular accounts of high profile villains being "brought to justice." Family whistle blowing exposed Bernie Madoff's insidious Ponzi scheme that bilked millions of dollars from unsuspecting investors. The notorious Osama Bin Laden was finally located in his Pakistan hideout. The tribunal in The Hague continues to issue indictments for suspected war criminals. These events offer us an opportunity to hold up a metaphorical mirror and reflect on our collective notions of justice. Without boring you with a long discussion of philosophical ideas like restorative and procedural justice I'd like to pose the simple question: is revenge justice? The reason I ask is because revenge has something of a negative reputation, despite the fact that some psychological research suggests it can be healthy!
Certainly, there are cultures that believe that punishing offenders-- through fines, beatings, incarceration, or worse-- is perfectly acceptable form of setting things to rights. In fact, in Albania, for example, there is a long and formal tradition of "blood-feuding" that prescribes exactly the types of revenge that are appropriate or inappropriate in certain situations. When a government meets out a punishment we call it justice but when the victim, or a person close to the victim, does the punishing we think of it as revenge and brand it as vigilantism. Although vigilantism has something of a bad reputation it hints at a very natural human urge: the need to get back at people. Maslow didn't mention this in his hierarchy of motivations but it is as fundamental to our nature as thirst. If you don't believe me then just recall the last time you played out an argument with your spouse in your head, reveling in your own best barbs, strongest counter-arguments and ultimate victory.
Let's start our understanding of revenge by talking about a feeling that often gets overlooked. It's called "embitterment." We all know about basic emotions such as fear and joy and guilt, but there are less well-known and more complex states as well, and embitterment is a perfect example. Embitterment is a sense of having been let down or victimized, coupled with a desire to fight back but-because the person feels helpless-it leads to fantasies of revenge or aggression. Embitterment can happen, for example, in a long property rights feud with a neighbor, in the aftermath of a marital affair, after a protracted dealing with an insurance company and in just about any situation in which you feel like a victim. We have all, to some extent, had the types of fantasies that accompany embitterment: sometimes they are about getting back at the jerk who cuts you off on the freeway and sometimes they are about reclaiming your dignity from a verbally abusive boss at work.
What is so interesting about these fantasies is that they are functional. They are not, as people commonly believe, the dangerous aggressive tendencies of people who are too petty or too incapable of forgiving others. Nor are they immoral mental habits of people who are too petty to know right from wrong. Instead, revenge fantasies have been shown to have a number of psychological benefits. In one study, soldiers experienced more positive emotions when they imagined the suffering of their superiors (who, presumably, had heaped some suffering on the soldiers in the past). At first blush this may sound like vindictiveness but the real lesson is in how these mental images affect our mood. It may be that revenge fantasies serve to buffer people against the negative feelings associated with victimization. In a second study, Markus Denzler and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which participants who were presented with a hypothetical scenario describing a cheating lover were given the opportunity to fulfill a revenge goal by stabbing a voodoo doll. Doing so made them less-not more-- aggressive because their feelings of retribution had been borne out.
In a third study, Mario Gollwitzer and his colleague examined which aspects of the revenge fantasy are so psychologically tonic. The researchers tested two candidate hypotheses: In the first case, victims might like revenge because they see an offender suffering through an unpleasant activity (such as having to look at and rate gross photographs). In the second scenario, the victims might find revenge sweet because the offenders actually "learned their lesson" (in this scenario the offender knew that they had been assigned to the gross photographs because of what they had done wrong!). The researchers found that it is not simply witnessing the suffering of the offender that feels good to the victim. The real power of revenge is in teaching a lesson; in the offender coming to understand, personally, that their actions were wrong.
These studies present a new look at the old concept of revenge. Rather than being a sign of an unhealthy mind it could be that revenge fantasies play an important protective role for victims. To be certain, acting out a revenge and fantasizing about revenge are two very different things. If you find yourself doing the latter, however, don't beat yourself up.... You're perfectly healthy.