Which Is More Empowering, Forgiveness or Revenge?

In some cases, the answer may be both.

Posted Sep 24, 2020

When we’ve been harmed by someone’s actions, especially someone we trust and rely on, it can threaten our need for control, making us feel vulnerable and powerless. Research suggests that the way we respond when we feel hurt often reflects an attempt to regain that sense of power.

But what kinds of responses are most effective in that regard? Are we better off forgiving and forgetting, resolving to let go of anger and resentment? Or should we leverage those emotions to make sure the other person learns a lesson and doesn’t behave that way again?

One answer to this question, according to recent research, is that it depends on the nature of the offense, and specifically the nature of the offender’s intentions. 

In an initial study, participants envisioned a scenario where one of their friends told an embarrassing story about them in a social setting. From there, they were randomly assigned to imagine that their friend either intended to hurt them or did not intend to hurt them, and then to imagine that they either forgave their friend, took revenge by embarrassing their friend in a similar way, or did nothing in response. A second study followed a similar format but asked about responses to real-life transgressions, such as betrayal from a romantic partner. 

The results of both studies indicated that revenge—whether imagined in a hypothetical scenario or enacted in real life—was related to a greater sense of empowerment than doing nothing, but only when the other person had intended to be hurtful. By contrast, forgiveness was linked to empowerment regardless of the offender’s intent. 

The researchers concluded that revenge might feel more empowering when it serves a constructive purpose, such as teaching someone a lesson or showing them that their behavior won’t be tolerated, and this may be more relevant for intentional harm. But they noted that in many cases it may be assertiveness and standing up for oneself that is more empowering than revenge per se. 

The form that revenge takes likely also matters. In the first study, revenge took the form of publicly embarrassing your friend the same way they embarrassed you. But there may be ways to make someone feel the consequences of their actions that are more constructive than simply repeating the same offense. For example, the victim in this scenario might have chosen to take some distance from their friend, which could be empowering without also causing shame or regret. 

The finding that forgiveness was empowering regardless of offender intent is consistent with research suggesting that forgiveness can have mental and physical health benefits. Forgiveness can involve regaining a sense of power and control by choosing to let go of the burden of resentment and reduce the emotional hold that someone’s actions have over you. In fact, it may be this empowering effect that explains some of its positive impacts on well-being, the researchers suggested. 

But like revenge, the impact of forgiveness may depend on the offender’s intentions. In one study, participants anticipated feeling lower self-respect if they forgave a romantic partner who did not make amends for a betrayal of trust, compared to withholding forgiveness in such a situation. Another study found that marital forgiveness was related to a reduction in repeat offenses only to the extent that the offender scored high on the personality trait of agreeableness, which involves empathy and kindness. Less kind offenders may have viewed forgiveness as a sign of weakness that could be exploited (one analysis found that they were less afraid that their partners would get angry if they repeated the offense), while kinder partners may have seen forgiveness as a gesture of goodwill that should be respected. 

Further complicating the picture, although forgiveness and revenge may seem like polar opposites, research suggests that they are sometimes positively correlated—that is, it’s possible for people to feel both desires at once or to engage in both behaviors. Someone may feel compassion for an offender but still want justice to be served, for example. In one group of studies, participants were more forgiving of offenders who received what they believed to be an appropriate and fair punishment, compared to those who were not punished. Rather than fueling anger, the fair punishment seemed to quell it. 

Coping with transgressions, especially more serious ones, is not a simple process; even when forgiveness is the ultimate goal, the road to get there can be a long and bumpy one. In the midst of a hurtful experience, sometimes the most empowering thing we can do is to let ourselves feel what we’re feeling, without judgment—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and before jumping into action, give ourselves the space to consider what responses will best serve us and those we care about in the long term. 

References

Strelan, P., Van Prooijen, J.W., & Gollwitzer, M. (2020). When transgressors intend to cause harm: The empowering effects of revenge and forgiveness on victim well-being. British Journal of Social Psychology, 59(2), 447-469.