When does revenge taste sweet? A short tale of revenge

Another important feature of revenge is the magnitude of retaliation; In principle, the revenge should be appropriate and equitable, if only from the avenger's point of view (e.g., Stillwell, Baumeister, & Priore, 2008; Tripp, Bies, & Aquino, 2002). Accordingly, the consequences of revenge should be comparable to the harm initially inflicted. However, there are examples showing that in some cases the retributive action is much stronger than the initial provocation, but nevertheless avengers may feel good and have the impression that they are “doing the right thing”.

Revenge may seem like an obvious and instinctive reaction, but it is thus important to examine not only the motivations for such behavior, but also the subsequent satisfaction: Does revenge really taste sweet?

Does Revenge Taste Sweet?

The Swiss neuroscientist Dominique de Quervain and his colleagues (de Quervain et al., 2004) addressed the question of whether revenge tastes sweet in a neuroimaging study. With this technique, scientists are able to elucidate the relationship between brain activity and certain mental functions. To explore the neural basis of punishment, subjects played an economic money exchange game with a second participant while their brains were scanned. If one participant (let’s call him A) decided to donate his money to a second person (B), the total amount was doubled. If B did not give back any money in return (as norms of fairness of course would advise), player A would have the possibility to punish B by delivering penalty points. The results demonstrated that participants did punish the other players, even when those points had to be bought with their own money. These kind of experiments show that punishment is associated with the activation of reward-related areas in our brain. More precisely, the activation took place in the dorsal striatum, which is part of the brain’s reward system and involved in many other reward-related behavior, such as food, sex, and addictive drugs. Furthermore, their results suggest that people anticipated gaining satisfaction from punishing deviants. Thus, de Quervain and his colleagues provide physiological evidence that revenge feels good, and indeed may taste sweet.

In line with these findings, a study conducted by Mario Gollwitzer and Markus Denzler in 2009 demonstrated that after participants took revenge, aggression-related thoughts were inhibited. This seems to be another positive effect of taking revenge. However, and importantly, this was only true for certain conditions, but we will get to that later. Further support for this notion comes from Arlene Stillwell and her colleagues (2008). They found the same effect in the opposite direction, such that people who did not engage in revenge after being provoked felt angrier.

On the contrary, there are also findings that indicate that revenge may not always be beneficial for the avenger. In a study reported by Kevin Carlsmith and colleagues (2008), people who took revenge were less satisfied compared to those who did not have a chance to take revenge, or those who only fantasized about taking revenge. Specifically, avengers seemed to ruminate more about their “tantalizer” and whether they really “got even” by way of their retribution.

Regardless of these conflicting results, the evidence described above suggests that there is some truth in the popular expression that “revenge tastes sweet”. This brings up the question: When exactly does it feel good to take revenge, and what makes revenge taste so sweet?

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