When does revenge taste sweet? A short tale of revenge

Delivering a Message or Equalizing Pain?

Gollwitzer and colleagues (Gollwitzer, Meder, & Schmitt, 2011) suggest that there are two general ways in which revenge is experienced positively. First, it may be the urge to see the offender suffer the way oneself did. This implies that an equal level of suffering between oneself and the harm-doer may lead to the feeling of satisfaction, whereby it should not matter whether the victim is responsible for the revenge (just so long as the offender comes to suffer). Thus, seeing the pants of my scheming colleague rip during a presentation would be satisfying to me even if I am not personally responsible for his bad luck. We refer to this as the so-called “comparative suffering hypothesis” (Frijda, 1994). An alternative notion holds that it is more likely that revenge aims to deliver a message to the offender. Perhaps we want to make clear that the perpetrator did something very wrong and therefore needs to be punished. When this message hits home, we may feel satisfied. We refer to this assumption as the so-called “understanding hypothesis”. Reviewing the existing evidence, there are reasonable arguments for both hypotheses.

For the first hypothesis, an offense causes an affective imbalance between the offender and the victim, and in turn the victim tries to reduce this imbalance (see Frijda, 1994). This goal can only be fulfilled when the harm-doer experiences harm comparable to the amount of harm the victim endured. There are indeed studies that provide support for this “comparative suffering” notion. For example, when people learn that the offender suffers a misfortune, observers’ tendency to deliver punishment diminishes (e.g., Austin, 1979). The second hypothesis, the “understanding” hypothesis,puts an emphasis on communication between victim and offender. In this case, it is important that the offender realizes that revenge was imposed on him, because his or her prior behavior (cf. Miller, 2001).

Gollwitzer and his colleagues (Gollwitzer, Meder, & Schmitt, 2011) recently conducted a set of three laboratory experiments to test both hypotheses in one design, in which participants had to punish an ostensible second participant. In one of their studies, participants took part in a lottery in which they could gain or lose extra money after they received harsh feedback on an essay they wrote. The real participants drew lots, which determined the allocation of money to the ostensible partner. One half of the people drew “power” lots which enabled them to deduct money from the deviant person, and thus they were able to punish the deviant for the unfair treatment. The other half of the participants “accidentally” drew a “lose” lot, which made the ostensible partner and former harm-doer lose money “by fate”. Next, Gollwitzer and colleagues varied whether or not participants received a message from the ostensible harm-doer in which she/he insinuates that the punishment was due to her/his unfair behavior (“Shit happens! Too bad for me, but maybe this is the price I have to pay for being so mean to you …”). Finally, they measured whether people were satisfied and if they had the impression that “everyone got what he or she deserved”.

Interestingly, findings across all studies provided much stronger support for the “understanding hypothesis” than the “comparative suffering hypothesis”, i.e. people felt the most satisfaction and deservingness when they took revenge and the harm-doer understood that the punishment was due to his prior harmful behavior. When the offender did not write such an “understanding” message, victims experienced just as much satisfaction as those who learned that their partners were lucky and won in the lottery (as the second study in this series suggests).

Hence, the experience of satisfaction and the perception of re-established justice seem to demand more than just a balance in the amount of suffering. Rather, a crucial goal underlying vengeful behavior seems to be that avengers want to deliver a message to the perpetrator, and make the perpetrator aware that he/she did something wrong.

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