This Is What Drives Certain People's Hunger for Revenge

Psychologists have identified the personality correlates of revenge-seeking.

Posted Dec 02, 2017

What drives some people to act out of vengefulness more than others? Sadism is the dominant personality trait that makes certain people more likely than others to seek revenge, according to a new study led by David Chester of Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). This study, “Personality Correlates of Revenge-Seeking: Multidimensional Links to Physical Aggression, Impulsivity, and Aggressive Pleasure,” will be published in a forthcoming edition of the journal Aggressive Behaviors.

Sadistic people tend to derive pleasure from inflicting pain and suffering on others. Chester and co-author C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky found that people who derive pleasure from hurting others and watching them suffer are more likely to seek revenge against those who have wronged them.  

For this study, Chester and DeWall started with the simple question: “Who are revenge-seekers — and what motivates them?” To answer, they conducted three separate experiments involving 673 students at the University of Kentucky. Participants filled out questionnaires designed to elucidate someone’s real-life behavior surrounding vengefulness. For example, students were asked to agree or disagree with a variety of statements, such as "If I'm wronged, I can't live with myself until I get revenge," or "Anyone who provokes me deserves the punishment that I give.”

"A lot of people don't want to admit to having certain traits or tendencies that aren't really savory or socially acceptable, so you have to ask questions in a very specific way," Chester said in a statement. "You're not asking outright, 'Are you a vengeful person?' No one would say that they are. But instead, you can use a little bit of subterfuge and get some insight."

Chester is a leading scholar in the field of aggression research. He’s also director of the Social Psychology and Neuroscience Lab at VCU. The lab's primary goal is to advance our understanding of violent behavior and why people try to harm each other. The lab describes its mission as follows:

     “Decades of research have revealed what types of people are aggressive (e.g., narcissists, psychopaths) and what situations bring out violent tendencies (e.g., high temperatures, insults). However, the psychology community has yet to fully understand the feelings and thoughts that come in between such inputs and their aggressive outcomes.”

After reading this study, I was curious if Chester could recommend any possible interventions for individuals who possess personality trait correlates of revenge-seeking. In an email, I asked if he had any actionable advice for someone who self-identifies as being prone to vengefulness, but wants to stop impulsively acting out on his or her revenge-seeking behavior?

He responded:

"If vengeful individuals are motivated by the pleasure of the act of revenge, then they can do a few things:

  • Distract themselves with another, pleasurable outlet that isn't harmful.
  • Re-construe their "sweet revenge" in constructive, non-harmful terms (e.g., working out to make their ex regret breaking up with them).
  • Adopt mindfulness techniques to help them disconnect the emotions surrounding revenge from their actions.

"As an important disclaimer, none of these potential approaches have been scientifically validated in relation to revenge-seeking reduction, but they do follow from general psychological principles about how to regulate 'cravings.'

"Our real-world goal is to reduce violence and to reduce aggressive behavior. The most common form of that is revenge," Chester concluded. "So if we're trying to reduce aggression, we should start by trying to reduce revenge."

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David S. Chester and  C. Nathan DeWall. "Personality Correlates of Revenge-Seeking: Multidimensional Links to Physical Aggression, Impulsivity, and Aggressive Pleasure" (In press at Aggressive Behavior) Preprint DOI: 10.17605/OSF.IO/4W95M