Psychology tackles revenge: Equity, identity, and betrayal

When dictators are toppled, how do citizens react?

Posted May 10, 2011

When dictators are toppled, relief among the citizenry is often followed by desire for revenge. The role of revenge in human history extends back through the millennia. What causes us to try to get even? Why do we spend so much of our valuable psychic energy plotting and planning against those we love, work for, serve, or are served by? Psychology doesn't have the final answers but we know that there are three very compelling motives behind revenge. All of them share the idea that revenge stems from some sort of threat, imbalance, or combination of the two.

Let's start with equity, the idea that people in a relationship seek to achieve balance. Recently, equity theory received renewed attention through the book "Spousonomics," which puts economic equity at the front and center of marital happiness. In the context of revenge, however, equity takes on a more ominous role.  The Biblical law of retribution demands "an eye for an eye," in other words, avengers deserve equity for the harm inflicted upon them by others.  Revenge, then, establishes what should be an equitable balance between both parties. Unfortunately, logic doesn't necessarily prevail in determining whether emotionally harmed parties have achieved justice. Victims of inequity may become so enraged that the revenge they exact far outweighs the original extent of harm inflicted upon them. Now the original harm-doer becomes the victim and, in turn, seeks to restore equity by further retaliation. This phenomenon was labeled the "magnitude gap" by Florida State psychologist Roy Baumeister. As described by SUNY Potsdam psychologist Arlene Stillwell and colleagues in a 2008 article, "what seems fair to the original victim may seem grossly excessive to the original perpetrator" (p. 255). It's all a matter of role (perpetrator vs. revenge-seeker) and perceptions (how much harm you've experienced).

Not everyone reacts to real or imagined harm with a desire to exact equal amounts of punishment on the harm-doer. Stillwell and her associates found that participants in their study repressed their revenge desire if they saw that either (a) they would get no practical gain or (b) they were ethically opposed. It's true that revenge can have unintended negative consequences in the pragmatic sense. New York Times social etiquette columnist Philip Galanas provided advice for the victim of an office tattletale essentially to "let it go," even though the tattletale led the writer to be fired. This is a good example of a case when revenge can only make your personal situation much worse, instead of better.  Averting revenge can also occur when the victim decides to take the moral high ground and forgive the original wrongdoer.  Turning the other cheek puts a quick end to the revenge cycle.

What if you're not capable of such moral or practical high road tactics? You can always try passive aggressive revenge. This has the advantage of putting the wrongdoer in a state of extreme emotional discomfort. According to Stillwell and her colleagues, wrongdoers tend to minimize the extent of their own wrongdoing. They forgive themselves for their harmful actions and chalk the episode up to experience. This is an understandable reaction. Who, beside a masochist or ruminator, wants to feel plagued by guilt? However, you can use this tendency to deny guilt to your advantage.

The passive aggressive approach is your stealth weapon for bringing on the wrongdoer's sense of guilt. Top on the list of passive aggressive responses is pretending that the wrongdoer actually did you a favor by harming you. By doing so, you've made it clear that you know you were wronged, but you aren't giving the wrongdoer a valid reason to get back at you. A bit more dangerous approach is to go through a third person to exact your revenge. If you decide to take this route, you need to make sure that any hard evidence (such as emails) has the mask of sweetness and piety so that you never appear to be overtly aggressive; otherwise you could get in trouble yourself. For example, make your complaint against the wrongdoer sound like a compliment, not a criticism. 

Relationship experts warn against the passive aggressive move, suggesting instead that you confront your wrongdoer directly with a statement about how the action made you feel. Again, depending on the nature of the relationship, this may or may not be feasible or even advisable. If the wrongdoer is a higher-up who doesn't like criticism of any sort, you'll probably have to swallow your anger.  If you can delay gratification long enough (a mark of high emotional intelligence), then you will probably get your revenge eventually. People in high places who get angry at criticism often get their comeuppance because they haven't learned how to grow from their mistakes.

Whether you care or not about getting revenge may also depend on which aspect of your identity is being harmed or threatened, making identity the second motive in the revenge equation. In one fascinating study with important real-world implications, a team of researchers led by Graz University's Peter Fischer asked British university women to rate their perceived threat, aggressive feelings, and desire for retaliation after they were made aware of a potentially harmful situation. The researchers first made the women aware of either their identities as women or their identities as British citizens through an experimental priming condition. Then they presented the women with statements or photos of either the July 2005 London bombings or the oppressive treatment of women by the Taliban. Women made to think about their national identity reacted with a greater desire for revenge and aggression to the London bombing photos. For women whose gender identity was made more salient to them, their responded with greater anger and desire for retaliation when Seeking balance in relationships can have its costsgiven the Taliban information. In other words, a threat to your identity is likely to provoke a greater desire for retaliation than a threat that you don't see as relevant to your sense of self as a person.

Betrayal comes in as a strong number three in the list of revenge motives. When consumers feel wronged, they often strike out against their wrongdoer.  The wrongdoer might be a restaurant owner who serves up a horrible meal at outrageous prices, a company that refuses to offer a refund for damaged merchandise, or a large corporate structure such as a credit card or oil company that passes along inflated prices to the public at large.  Washington State University marketing researchers Yany Gregroire and Robert Fisher regard situations like these to violate the "fairness norm" in the customer's mind. When this norm is violated,  customers seek to restore fairness by either demands for reparation or retaliatory behavior. The unhappy restaurant patron retaliates by posting a negative online review. The purchaser of shoddy merchandise seeks a partial or complete refund, possibly taking the form of an enraged encounter at the customer service desk (we've all witnessed this!). In Gregoire and Fisher's study of wronged airline passengers, those most likely to express their betrayal in the form of complaints were the ones who actually felt most committed to the airline. It wasn't the people who didn't care; it was the people who felt the strongest about the company who felt most aggreived. In other words, when "love becomes hate," the desire for revenge increases exponentially. It's not the fact that you were overcharged, perhaps, but that you were overcharged by your favorite merchant, the one you trusted.

The airline study shows how betrayal and identity are linked. We feel most outraged by those we trusted the most, because those we trusted the most are closest to our own sense of who we are. You may not go around thinking of yourself, number one, as an American Airlines passenger unless you're George Clooney's character in Up in the Air. However, people do identify with corporate images; if they didn't corporations wouldn't spend so much on marketing their logos.

How do you manage your own feelings of revenge and use your own feelings of wrongdoing to your benefit? Research on equity, identity, and betrayal suggests these helpful steps:

1. Control your initial angry impulse. Take stock of a situation before you react. Remember that equity researchers showed that victims may over-react to perceived harm.  Also, as I've noted in a previous posting, control anything you put online that could haunt you later.

2. Examine why you're feeling aggrieved.  Do you feel betrayed by someone close to you? Is your desire for revenge one that taps into your own insecurities? If so, maybe you're over-reacting, or maybe you can simply use the experience to learn about yourself.

3. Consider which aspect of your identity is being threatened. As shown in the study of British university students, you'll react most strongly when your most important aspect of identity is at risk. Thinking about why this aspect of your identity is important to you is another way to gain valuable insights into yourself.

4. Try to take the moral high road. We've all seen local, regional, national, and international escalations emerge out of real or imagined threats. Avoid harming your own personal security by trying to stop the escalation before it gets out of control.

5. Talk directly to the wrongdoer. People don't always know they've harmed others. Instead of plotting and scheming behind someone's back, take it directly to that person and explain how the action made you feel.  The wrongdoer and you can both stand to gain important lessons.

You may not be able to stem your desire for equity, but you can at least follow these steps to feel better about yourself, avoid the consequences of escalation, and perhaps even restore happiness and fulfillment to a damaged relationship.

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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011


Fischer, P., Haslam, S., & Smith, L. (2010). "If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?" Social identity salience moderates support for retaliation in response to collective threat. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 14(2), 143-150. doi:10.1037/a0017970

Grégoire, Y., Tripp, T. M., & Legoux, R. (2009). When customer love turns into lasting hate: The effects of relationship strength and time on customer revenge and avoidance. Journal of Marketing, 73(6), 18-32. doi:10.1509/jmkg.73.6.18

Stillwell, A. M., Baumeister, R. F., & Del Priore, R. E. (2008). We're all victims here: Toward a psychology of revenge. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 30(3), 253-263. doi:10.1080/01973530802375094

Szuchman, P. & Anderson, J. (2011). Spousonomics: Using economics to master love, marriage, and dirty dishes.  New York: Random House.