Psychology of Revenge (Definition + Purpose)

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Practical Psychology

“An eye for an eye” is an idea old as time - it appears a few times in the Old Testament, or the Torah. It’s an idea at the heart of epic movies and classic novels. (At least three movies use the phrase as its title, but they aren’t so epic - the 1996 Eye for an Eye movie got a whopping 8% on Rotten Tomatoes.)

Even if you’re not the character in a novel, you’ve probably thought about taking an eye for an eye. You might have acted on these fantasies of revenge, or put them aside. After all, even the Bible preaches that revenge is not so sweet - in the New Testament, it is suggested that you “turn the other cheek,” rather than take a tooth for a tooth.

Religious texts say one or more things about revenge. So do classic films and movies. But what does science say?

Revenge Definition

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, revenge is "to avenge (oneself or another) usually by retaliating in kind or degree." To avenge means "to exact satisfaction for (a wrong) by punishing the wrongdoer." Slashing an ex’s tires or spitting in a rude customer’s food may be considered "revenge." 

Why Do We Seek Revenge?

The idea of revenge is everywhere - from Kill Bill to Gladiator to The Count of Monte Cristo. But culture is just one driving force in our temptation to seek revenge.

It provides a sense of justice and power.

There is a key difference between revenge and punishment. When we take revenge against another person, we do so with the aim of making them suffer. Punishment, on the other hand, involves some suffering, but the ultimate aim is to change the person’s behavior. People are sent to jail (ideally) with the hopes that they will be remodeled into a productive citizen of society. Revenge doesn’t give the person the opportunity to change, only suffer. But to some, that is why it’s so sweet.

Experts believe that “strengthening institutions” prevents people from wanting to take revenge. If you knew that cheating was an offense penalized by two years in jail, you would be less likely to slash your cheating ex’s tires. But in situations where we believe we are being “unfairly wronged,” we might feel tempted to take control and “make things right.”

We also want to take control for the future. Revenge is often a way of lowering the chance of wrong-doing in the future. If you punch a bully in the face, then all the other kids on the schoolyard will know not to bully you, right?

We don’t want to take on the blame.

Many cases of revenge boil down to who is “wrong” and who is “right.” But that’s not always how these situations work. People who take the time to shift their perspective and contemplate their role in the wrongdoing are less likely to seek revenge. But this process requires a lot of empathy, self-awareness, and humility. We don’t want to admit that we are wrong, or that we contributed to someone else’s wrong deeds. We see things primarily from our perspective, and shifting that view can result in cognitive dissonance and discomfort. So we ignore the discomfort, put away any idea that we are “wrong,” and instead seek to “make things right” against who we believe is the ultimate wrongdoer.

We believe it will make us feel good.

All of this involves a lot of thinking. We think about slashing an ex’s tires. We think that our boss is just an evil jerk whose sole motive was to make us suffer. We think and think, making predictions on how we will feel before we take action.

Here’s where some interesting studies come in. Psychologists have found that just thinking about revenge makes us feel good. And when thinking about revenge makes us feel good, we are likely to believe that taking action will make us feel good.

Does Revenge Make Us Feel Good?

Revenge sounds like a lot of tempting habits, like drugs and alcohol or impulse shopping. We think that we’re going to feel better about the way we look by dropping $300 on a pair of jeans. But in reality, we’re going to feel the same way about how we look - and feel worse about our credit card bill.

The same happens with revenge.

Can Revenge Be Good?

Studies on revenge show that people don’t feel better after taking or witnessing revenge on a wrongdoer. In fact, they often feel worse. Revenge continues the wrongdoing. The person who took revenge ends up spending more time thinking about the situation and ruminating on the negative feelings that supposedly “warranted” the revenge. They don’t move on - they’re just stuck.

And this doesn’t even address what happens if the initial wrongdoer responds to the act of revenge. A cheating ex may feel that their slashed tires are not “an eye for an eye.” They may try to even the score themselves, and the process continues in a terrible and negative cycle.

How To Deal With Emotional Conflicts Without Revenge

Martin Luther King Jr. said that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Seeking revenge against someone isn’t going to make you the victor that you think it will. It might just leave a group of hurt people walking around without eyes.

So what can you do instead of seeking revenge?

Write down your feelings.

Studies show that writing down our feelings can dampen the effect that they have on the mind. Don’t leave things bottled up. Try journaling, or writing a note to someone that you ultimately don’t send. (Ideally, you rip it up or burn it once the letter has been written.)

See both sides.

If someone hurt you, you might not have done anything “wrong.” But there may be other factors at play. What was the person thinking when they hurt you? Were they responding to insecurities, doubts, or pressure from society? The person who wronged you might not benefit from revenge - they might need help. In shifting your perspective or having empathy, you may also discover that you did contribute to the wrongdoing. In those cases, it might be best to apologize.

Seek professional counseling or mediation.

Talk it out - but consider who is on the other side of the conversation. Friends who want to protect you may advocate for revenge - while this is normal, it might not be helpful in preventing revengeful acts. Reach out to a professional who can walk you through your emotions and help you find more productive ways of coping or finding closure.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, May). Psychology of Revenge (Definition + Purpose). Retrieved from

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