My mother with whom I went no contact three years ago has waged an outright war against me. Never mind that what she says about me is packed with lies and exaggeration; she seems committed to ruining my life and reputation. She’s managed to win my siblings over to her side but that doesn’t seem to be enough. She’s even taken to social media and she’s 66! What makes someone that motivated to hurt someone?
We’re seven years post-divorce and it never stops. I’ve remarried and he’s living with someone in what appears to be a committed relationship but I swear he wakes up every morning and the first thought that comes to his mind is how he can somehow make me pay. He drags me into court every chance he can. Does this make him happy? What would motivate him to hurt me and our children in this way?
Apart from a few saintly types, most of us have for a few minutes or perhaps longer fantasized about playing tit for tat—wreaking revenge on someone who has wronged, hurt, or betrayed us deliberately. For most of us, acting vengefully never gets past the fantasy stage; our rational minds kick in, along with our moral compasses, and perhaps our fear of continued reprisal. While we still may be angry, we choose instead to move on with our lives, either in full stride or with a noticeable limp. We don’t send an email to his boss about all the lies he’s told or that his expenses are bogus. We decide against getting word to her new boyfriend about what a scheming, faithless, manipulator she is. We give up on elaborate plans like rounding up his former disgruntled clients so we can try to get him disbarred. Revenge may be sweet, as the saying goes, but most of us settle for eating bonbons or perhaps buying a voodoo doll to stick pins in.
But not everyone stops at the fantasy stage. What motivates that mother with her slash-and-burn campaign? The ex who keeps taking you to court? What’s the skinny on those focused on revenge?
It’s no surprise that scientists have wondered about that too.
The psychology of revenge
Revenge as a response to injustice has a long literary history. Whether it’s Odysseus slaughtering the suitors who’ve taken over his house or the Old Testament intoning, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” the theme of revenge has never lost its luster, as countless contemporary variations in movies and books from high-brow to low attest. From Hamlet to The Count of Monte Cristo to Carrie and Gone Girl, the pulsing energy of revenge keeps us spellbound. But revenge doesn’t just animate fiction, of course. Killing is often justified by murderers as necessary revenge, along with other heinous acts which are supposedly given more gravitas by their history of provocation.
As Katrina Schumann and Michael Ross point out, revenge is an action provoked by a wrong, unlike other forms of aggression that require no provocation. Similarly, revenge and punishment are distinguished by motivation and goals: revenge seeks to have the transgressor suffer while punishment looks to improve the transgressor’s behavior or to deter future bad behavior. Finally, they point out something important about acts we label as revenge when the motivation is unclear: the labeling is based on inference and our attributions.
Some theorists believe that the threat of revenge may actually have helped our forebears build social bonds by promising swift retribution if rules or boundaries were transgressed. Additionally, those known to be vengeful were much less likely to be victimized or attacked.
Is there an upside to revenge?
As Kevin M. Carlsmith, Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert note, anecdotally, people tend to believe that retribution of some kind effectively releases the tension and anger someone feels toward the transgressor and his action, and that payback helps to assuage negative emotions, supplanting them with positive ones. But, in their own studies, while participants thought they’d feel better after exacting revenge, the researchers found the very opposite. It wasn’t just that punishing the transgressor didn’t provide a release but that it in fact made participants focus on and ruminate about both the transgressor and the transgression more, especially if the person had taken revenge himself rather than simply witnessing it.
Their findings expanded on other research that showed that the supposed cathartic effect of revenge is largely a fiction. The researchers connected the mistaken notion of what revenge would deliver to the evidence that, more generally, people aren’t very good at affective forecasting, or predicting how both future actions (and inactions) will make them feel.
That said, it turns out that revenge can deliver a jolt of pleasure—to men at least. Tania Singer and her colleagues had male and female participants engage in an economic game in which confederates either played fairly or unfairly, and then measured the activity in the participants’ brains with MRI as they watched the cheating players and the fair players receive an electric shock. Men and women reacted to the punishment of the fair player in the same way, with the parts of the brain associated with empathy being activated. But—and it’s a big but—when the bad guy was shocked, even though the women disliked and disapproved of him, nonetheless the empathy centers in their brains lit up. Not so for the dudes, in whom the reward-centers of the brain were activated big-time. This doesn’t mean that there are no vengeful women, of course, and the studies were conducted in a lab setting, but still.
Are women higher in empathy and men higher in revenge? You draw your own conclusions because the jury is still out.
Who’s more likely to be vengeful?
I wish someone had given me a field guide to narcissists before my divorce so I could have been prepared for the years of game-playing. But no; I totally didn’t get who he was until I wanted out. Low-key guy, not a braggart, and not very social but, boy oh boy, did he love being vindictive and vengeful. Since he drank himself out of our marriage, I’m still not sure what he was avenging other than his own rationalizations and lies, but he did.
Not everyone is inclined to vengeance and some are much more inclined than others; additionally, certain emotions, such as anger, are much likely to up the possibility of revenge as well. People who set great store by their reputations, for example, are more likely to seek revenge if they feel they and their honor have been unfairly impugned. But the clear top-scorer on the vengefulness scale is the person high in narcissistic traits. Up next? The one high in neuroticism.
The narcissist and revenge
One study by Ryan P. Brown explored the link between lack of forgiveness and vengefulness; was being unforgiving a guarantee of revenge? It was true enough that people high in forgiveness were low in vengefulness, but being unforgiving per se didn’t predict vengefulness. The deciding factor? Narcissism. The people most hell-bent on revenge were both low in forgiveness and high in narcissistic traits. As the researchers wrote: “Both the narcissist’s inflated social confidence and the narcissist’s sense of entitlement could produce a desire to retaliate against wrong-doers and could reduce constraints on acting on this desire.”
In his book The Narcissist You Know, Joseph Burgo actually identifies The Vindictive Narcissist as a type. Burgo attributes the narcissist’s vengefulness to his unconscious shame and his need to defend himself against that shame being revealed, leaving him thin-skinned and vulnerable to anything that looks vaguely like an attack. When he feels attacked, he reacts with no holds barred.
Alas, as Burgo points out, we rarely anticipate how vengeful the narcissist can be until we’re in the thick of it.
Insecurity, worry, and revenge
According to researchers, those high in neuroticism are also likely to seek revenge. At a glance, that seems counterintuitive because revenge is an aggressive act and these people worry and ruminate much of the time, are prone to self-criticism, and have trouble setting goals and achieving them. But their vengefulness is a product of their inability to manage negative emotions, particularly anger. A longitudinal study by John Maltby and others showed that individuals high in neuroticism and who experienced continued anger and hostility were still inclined to seek revenge two-and-a-half years after the original transgression! So, if you’re dealing with someone who has trouble managing anger, watch out!
A more recent study by David S. Chester and C. Nathan DeWall suggests that revenge and aggression are prompted by the need to self-regulate after social rejection. Interestingly, the researchers measured aggression by having participants stab a voodoo doll after simulated rejection scenarios; the number of stabs permitted was up to 51. What they found was that social rejection did significantly increase aggression, reflecting on the strength of the human need to belong and that exclusion can “elicit powerful and sometimes maladaptive responses.” Tellingly, believing in the catharsis of revenge mattered; those participants who consciously perceived aggression and revenge as ineffective ways of coping with social pain didn’t experience an increase in aggressive behavior. Still, counter to other studies, Chester and DeWall found that retaliation did lower negative affect after simulated rejection.
Conclusion? The effectiveness of revenge may depend on your beliefs about its working.
As for me, I am pretty much committed to the thought, attributed to George Herbert and highly dubious, since I studied 17th-century poetry, but quotable, as needlepoint pillows in many corners prove: Living well is the best revenge. And maybe a voodoo doll is a good investment.
Copyright © 2017 Peg Streep
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Schumann, Karina and Michael Ross, “The Benefits, Costs, and Paradox of Revenge,”Social and Personality Psychology Compass (2010), vol.4 (12), 1193-1205.
Carlsmith, Kevin M., Timothy D. Wilson, and Daniel T. Gilbert, “The Paradoxical Consequences of Revenge, “Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes (2008), vol.95 (6), 1316-1324.
Singer, Tania, Ben Seymour, John P. O’Doherty. Klass E. Stephen. Raymond J. Dolan, and Chris O’Frith, “Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others,” Nature (January 2006), 466-469.
Brown, Ryan P., “Vengeance is mine: Narcissism, vengeance, and the tendency to forgive,” Journal of Research In Personality(2004), 38, 576-584.
Burgo, Joseph. The Narcissist You Know. New York: Touchstone, 2015.
Maltby, John, Alex M. wood, Liza Day, Tabatha W.H. Kon, Ann Colley, and P. Alex Linley, “Personality Predictors of levels of forgiveness two-and-half years after transgression,” Journal of Research in Personality (2008), 42, 1088-1094.
Chester, David S. and C. Nathan DeWall, “Combating the Sting of Rejection with the Pleasure of Revenge: An New Look at How Emotion Shapes Aggression,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2017), 112(3), 413-430