Character  &  Context

The Bittersweet Taste of Revenge

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By Fade R. Eadeh, Stephanie A. Peak, & Alan J. Lambert

From the biblical mention of an “eye for an eye” to Inigo Montoya’s desire to avenge his father in The Princess Bride, the act of revenge has captured the interest of humans for quite some time. Given the longstanding history of this topic, one might reason that scientific research has arrived at a consensus on the emotional consequences of revenge. Yet, the emotional ramifications from revenge are fairly complex and are often times contradictory.

Some scientific research supports the common cultural expectation that revenge is sweet (de Quervain et al., 2004; Gollwitzer, Meder, & Schmitt, 2011). That is, revenge often makes the person feel better, given that the person inflicting harm has been punished for their actions. Yet, other research on the topic (Carlsmith, Wilson, & Gilbert, 2008; Lambert, Peak, Eadeh, & Schott, 2014) finds precisely the opposite; that revenge makes people feel worse. Ironically, this often occurs because retribution against the transgressor triggers thoughts about the original act of harm.

Something typically seen in scientific research is the pitting of two theoretical perspectives on a given topic. As discussed by Greenwald (2004), competing theoretical accounts (like the one discussed above) “attract researchers like moths to flames” (p. 277). Although there are some cases where resolution occurs (see Greenwald, 2012), there are other cases where no resolution takes place. However, one possibility is that both perspectives are correct. In our own research, we were interested in whether revenge could actually be both bitter and sweet.

We examined the emotional consequences of revenge using a historical event that resonated with many Americans; the assassination of Osama bin Laden. Many saw this event as a retributive act taken on behalf of all Americans, as a result of terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. We felt compelled to further understand the psychology of revenge, given the vivid images of people cheering in the streets outside of the White House and in New York City. These vivid memories inspired us to investigate whether revenge can produce both negative and positive emotional outcomes.

To test our bittersweet model of revenge, American participants across three studies were randomly assigned to read and react to a fact-based account of bin Laden’s death (with no explicit mention of the 9/11 attacks) or an affectively neutral control. We then asked participants to complete a standard mood inventory, where they rated their current feelings (e.g., angry, sad, happy, satisfied). In addition, participants also completed a writing task, in which they were asked to express their thoughts and feelings towards their assigned event. To analyze their writing samples, we then performed content analyses (using the Linguistic Inventory Word Count program; Pennebaker, Boyd, Jordan, & Blackburn, 2015), to see if a greater proportion of positive or negative emotional language was evoked when describing this act of revenge.

Results from all three of our three studies demonstrated that people in the experimental (vs. control) condition were in a worse mood (e.g., more angry) when reminded of revenge. This finding was important because it replicated our previous work and was also consistent with the model presented by Carlsmith et al. (2008). 

However, we also asked participants to write about their reaction towards the bin Laden assassination. Interestingly, content analyses from the writing task painted a different picture; that participants expressed both positive and negative reactions to the death of bin Laden. This obviously contrasts from our mood-based findings from above, such that directly asking participants about their emotional reaction towards revenge demonstrated a bittersweet nature to such an act.   

We further confirmed this hypothesis in our last study, where participants completed a more traditional measure of emotion (as opposed to mood) towards the event. These findings also displayed the bittersweet nature of the act of revenge, such that responses to these types of items led to both greater positive and negative feelings towards the event. In short, we believe that directly asking people about their reactions towards revenge, as opposed to less direct measures like mood, can illuminate the negative and positive consequences of such an act.

In sum, our collection of studies offers a more nuanced understanding of how people feel after revenge. Instead of finding evidence that revenge was wholly bad or wholly good, we found support for both types of reactions. Understanding the dynamics of revenge are both practically and theoretically important, as both types of feelings can contribute towards an endless cycle of retribution, emerging across both interpersonal and intergroup settings.

One prominent example in American history is the conflict between the Hatfield and the McCoy family. On one hand, feelings of negativity from a previous harmful act probably fueled both families’ desire to take revenge. On the other hand, however, actually taking the revenge might provide satisfaction and vindication for the previous infraction. In this sense, it is conceivable how revenge could contribute toward a vicious cycle of conflict across interpersonal and intergroup contexts. In the end, we hope that future research will provide additional perspective on the emotional and behavioral consequences of revenge.


Fade Eadeh and Stephanie Peak are doctoral candidates in the Attitude and Decision Making Laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis. Fade is broadly interested in the relationship between emotion and judgment, and its application to the domain of politics. Stephanie studies group membership dynamics, centered around political ideology, familial association, and racial identification. 

Alan Lambert is an associate professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.   Alan's general interests are in the field of social cognition, defined broadly.  His most focus has been on the role of affect and emotion in shaping social and political attitudes. 

Fade's Research Gate page: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Fade_Eadeh

Stephanie's Research Gate page: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Stephanie_Peak2

The ADM lab webpage: https://pages.wustl.edu/lambert


References:

Carlsmith, K. M., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). The paradoxical consequences of revenge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1316–1324.

De Quervain, D. J. F., Fischbacher, U., Treyer, V., Schellhammer, M., Schnyder, U., Buck, A., & Fehr, E. (2004). The neural basis of altruistic punishment. Science, 305, 1254–1258.

Greenwald, A. G. (2012). There is nothing so theoretical as a good method. Perspectives on Psychological Science7, 99-108.

Gollwitzer, M., Meder, M., & Schmitt, M. (2011). What gives victims satisfaction when they seek revenge? European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 364–374

Lambert, A. J., Peak, S. A., Eadeh, F. R., & Schott, J. P. (2014a). How do you feel now? On the perceptual distortion of extremely recent changes in anger. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 52, 82–95.

Pennebaker, J. W., Boyd, R. L., Jordan, K., & Blackburn, K. (2015). The development and psychometric properties of LIWC2015. Austin, TX: University of Texas at Austin.

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