You’ve probably heard the saying “revenge is sweet,” and the tales of revenge that receive the most media attention typically do have an element of victory in the narrative (Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who chopped off her ex-husband’s penis after he sexually assaulted her, easily comes to mind.)
Less commonly discussed are the smaller, everyday acts of revenge that people commit, and how they feel about it. This sort of revenge still affects people, but it seems as if the universal “sweetness” of revenge is probably, at least to some extent, a product of popular mythology.
About 20 years ago, we started conducting research on revenge after noticing that people often struggle with forgiveness – even forgiving the people they love. In most relationships, people usually want to feel like they’re getting a fair deal, and revenge is one recourse they have if they feel they’ve been slighted.
Some forms of revenge do make the perpetrator feel better, though it’s usually not as “sweet” as imagined. A number of other factors influence how people feel about committing revenge, from how it’s crafted to the target’s reaction.
More bittersweet than sweet
For the most part, research on revenge has focused on romantic relationships and the workplace. These studies have mapped out a topography of revenge that looks rather different from the image often portrayed in popular media; it’s rarely as violent or dramatic as it appears to be on TV, in movies and in literature.
There’s good reason: Public acts of revenge can make a person civically or criminally liable, whether it’s revenge porn or damaging someone’s property. Instead, revenge often involves breaking the typical rules of a relationship: not returning a text message or phone call, purposefully being unreliable or being less affectionate.
Many brood about getting revenge because they think it will make them feel better. Unfortunately, most people aren’t particularly good at predicting how they’ll feel in the future. In a 2008 study, one group of participants was asked to imagine how they would feel if they could punish the people who didn’t cooperate in a game. The other group was allowed to actually punish those who didn’t cooperate. The people in the group that imagined taking revenge consistently thought it would feel better than the actual punishers found it to be.
It’s not that there aren’t any positive experiences associated with getting revenge – there are. It just doesn’t feel as good for as long as many people think it would.
So rather than revenge being either bitter or sweet, it’s more likely that revenge is bittersweet.
Revenge: A dish best served…symmetrically?
At least two factors determine whether a person feels good or bad about revenge.
One is how “beautiful” or aesthetically pleasing the act of revenge seems. In one study, researchers asked a group of MBA students to tell two stories they personally knew about a time that they (or someone they knew) had taken revenge on a coworker.
They felt much better about some stories than others – those that appealed to a person’s sense of duty, like when someone might “take one for the team” and go after a coworker who was mistreating everyone; acts that were especially well-tailored to the offense (say, getting a coworker who constantly took credit for other people’s work fired by sabotaging the very work that the freeloader had been taking credit for); or those that had symmetry between the offense and the act of revenge, with each having similar consequences. (For example, imagine a manager of a computer store who sets unusually strict standards for cleanliness, and constantly keeps the workers on the job past the end of their shift; to get revenge, the workers are extra meticulous about cleaning every last shelf, drawer and corner so they can keep the manager on duty longer than he or she wants.)
The other factor that influences how people feel about revenge is the target’s reaction.
In one study, participants played a problem-solving game with an assistant who was instructed to take more than a fair share of the winnings (in this case, raffle tickets). In return, the participants could punish the assistant by removing some of the raffle tickets from the assistant without the possibility of gaining any for themselves. The researchers found that people reported feeling more satisfied about punishing the assistant when, after meting out the punishment, they received a message from the assistant saying “Your decision to subtract my raffle tickets has probably something to do with my distribution. It was unfair, I know.”
The researchers say that the satisfaction – the “sweetness” of revenge – comes from knowing that the act of revenge changed the offender in some way. If the participants witnessed that change, they felt more capable of influencing the other person’s attitude or actions.
So in order for revenge to be enjoyable, the way it is crafted, performed and responded to seem to matter. The best kinds make people feel like they are living in a better, more controllable and fair world. Others – especially those that make people feel regret, don’t change the offender or result in lopsided amounts of harm – are probably not as sweet as you’d imagine them to be.