Revenge Is Rarely Sweet

The Fallen Angel (1847) (Detail) by Alexandre Cabanel (1823-1889)  for revenge blog post


Experimental research suggests revenge costs more than it delivers.

Revenge is a universal human instinct. Who hasn’t nursed fantasies of transforming into an all-powerful being—an avenging Batman or Black Widow? We seek to harm those who have humiliated, shamed, dominated, or oppressed us. When our rights are trampled, when an abuser inflicts wounds, when our self-image or our collective identity has been dishonored, we desire retaliation.

Revenge, retaliation, retribution—these words are not as interchangeable as they seem. The Latin root of revenge is vindicare, which is also the root of vindication. It’s interesting how the meaning of these words has evolved over time. Revenge typically involves the desire to inflict harm, suffering, or punishment in response to a perceived wrong and often includes strong emotions like anger or a desire for personal satisfaction. Vindication is now associated with clearing one’s name or proving one’s innocence. Retaliation seeks to address a perceived harm but does not necessarily involve inflicting harm in return. Retribution seeks to impose just penalties within a legal or moral framework.

In all its permutations, revenge aims to redress a perceived injury and punish the perpetrator. Ironically, revenge can also act as a deterrent in preventing further injury. In situations in which laws or government are weak and where gangs, militia groups, or bullies rule, the law of the jungle prevails: Be careful who you mess with, or else. (or, in less friendly terms, kill or be killed). The warning may suppress further violence but also reinforce an authoritarian or coercive regime.

Does personal revenge work? Does it restore justice? Is it cathartic? The answer from various disciplines suggests not. Behavioral studies indicate revenge does not grant the euphoria of satisfaction, but instead sets up cycles of rumination and ongoing distress.[1] The diaries of school shooters and mass murderers testify to the obsessive nature of revenge. Venting anger through the written word or social media does not seem to alleviate the impulse toward violence.

Fantasizing about revenge may be tremendously gratifying but psychologists observe that acting out revenge does not diminish feelings of animosity and can even prolong the avenger’s reaction to the original offense. Contrary to popular belief, revenge is rarely sweet! Nor does it automatically lead to catharsis or closure, but instead invites continued brooding and dissatisfaction. Increased rumination sets the stage for retribution and more cycles of aggression. Addressing this toll on the avenger, journalist Eric Jaffe writes: “The actual execution of revenge carries a bitter cost of time, emotional and physical energy, and even lives.” [2]

Some researchers have suggested that unacknowledged revenge, when the victim does not know the source of their suffering, is especially unsatisfying to the avenger. (You get beat up coming home from work. I want you to know this is happening to you because of what you said to my sister and that I am responsible for your pain.) Writing in the November 2010 issue of European Journal of Social Psychology, the authors, Mario Gollwitzer and his cohort, conclude that successful revenge is not merely about payback, but about delivering a message. “When the offender understood revenge as punishment, revenge led to satisfaction and deservingness among victims.”[3]

Who seeks revenge and why is shaped by our individual personalities and cultural heritage. Most of us do not succumb to acting out our revenge. Some people when slighted are not tempted to retaliate and instead move on. Scientists speculate we may have evolved an adaptive internal scale that weighs the costs of revenge against its benefits. In his book, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, experimental psychologist Michael McCullough contends that we may have evolved a secondary system of forgiveness that enables people to suppress the desire for revenge in favor of forgiveness. This internal system supports forgiveness and allows for the repair of a relationship.[4]

In some cultures, a desire for revenge arises out of public shame, while in individualistic cultures like our own, vengeance is sought when we believe ourselves or our rights have been dismantled or ignored. In societies that value collective identity, revenge can be evoked in response to the mistreatment of someone in our tribe or group: dishonoring my brother dishonors me.

The moral argument often cited for revenge goes back to Exodus 21-23, which dictates reciprocal justice: “But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”[5] It is often misinterpreted as a call for revenge, but the Biblical phrase puts limits on retaliation, one eye for one eye, not two eyes for one eye. Gandhi famously said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Retribution can sound like a claim for justice but the problem is that everyone’s justice looks different. Revenge can signal to the original victim an end to their exploitation or abuse, but the result of seeking justice through revenge is often more destruction and death. Tease a bear out of a tree and it may come charging at you in self-defense, but self-defense is not revenge. Revenge has a bitter and spiteful aspect that intends the other to suffer. The British philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon said, “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green.” More recently, I heard a podcaster say, “Revenge is like drinking poison and expecting the other guy to die.”

If the instinct for revenge is automatic and universal, how do we control its destructive urge? As thinking animals with the capacity to evaluate our thoughts and imagine future consequences, we are free, unlike the bear, to objectively assess and regulate our behavior. We can discern behavioral patterns that are troublesome and disentangle from the motivating revenge stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and others. In each situation that inspires revenge, we can reevaluate our narrative and rewrite the ending. Perhaps we can ask ourselves, Instead of revenge, what would my forgiveness look like here? 

[1] Carlsmith, K. M., Wilson, T..D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008) “The paradoxical consequences of revenge,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1316-1324

[2] Jaffe, Eric, “The Complicated Psychology of Revenge,” Association for Psychological Science Observer, October 4, 2011

[3] Gollwitzer, M., Meder, M., and Schmitt, M., (2010) “What gives victims satisfaction when they seek revenge?” European Journal of Social Psychology, 41(3), 364-374.

[4] McCullough, Michael, Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct (2008). Jossey-Bass.

[5] Exodus 23, The Bible, New International Version

This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at 

If you found this post interesting, you may also want to read “Four Principles of Survival My Characters Taught Me,” “The Fear of Abandonment: Missing Mothers and Fairy Tales,” and “Risks of Speaking Out: Coping with the Inequality of Power”

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