Editor’s note: We invited Dr. Steve Yoshimura of the University of Montana to talk about his facinating research on revenge in relationships; here’s what he said:
Relationships are full of slings and arrows that can sometimes spark a deep desire to “pay back” perceived offenses. Whether someone has been betrayed by a friend or romantic partner, been offended by a boss or coworker, or been a victim of a crime, the desire for revenge can be very strong. Until recently, however, researchers have known very little about this powerful, volatile experience.
I’ve been studying revenge in interpersonal relationships for several years. In one study,1 I asked people to think about a time that they had taken revenge against someone for something the person did to make them feel hurt or angry, and to tell me what they did, why they did it, and how it made them feel to think about what they did.
What drives people to want revenge?
In a word: Power. In my study, wanting to punish the person and gain dominance over them was more important than getting justice, a restoration of self-esteem or pride, coming to terms with the person, or gaining financial compensation.
What do people commonly do to get revenge?
The single most commonly reported revenge activity for all relationships is to simply stop talking to the person – stop taking their phone calls/emails/text messages, move out, leave, break up, or other acts that isolate the person.
People do a lot of other things too, of course. These can range from the minor (like being rude) to the criminal (physically attacking the person or their property) to the downright cruel (posting embarrassing photos and information about the person on the internet). When does one become more likely than another? My research suggests that overt acts of hostility become more likely as victims become increasingly desirous of power over an offender.
Is revenge really sweet?
The answer to this question is more complicated than it might seem. So yes and no. One brain-imaging study2 showed that people allowed to punish others for cheating in a game of monetary exchange experienced heightened blood flow to reward centers in the brain, namely the caudate nucleus and thalamus. This would make anticipating and immediately performing revenge roughly similar to ingesting nicotine or cocaine, or winning money. Yet other research tells a slightly different story. When I asked people to indicate how they felt as they thought about what they did in the past to enact revenge, the most intensely reported emotions were anger, remorse, and fear. Another study3 shows that people commonly believe that revenge will result in positive feelings, but they turn out to be pretty poor at “forecasting” their future states. In three experiments, Kevin Carlsmith, Timothy Wilson, and Daniel Gilbert (2008) showed that people who punished “free riders” in a game of monetary exchange anticipated feeling good after enacting revenge, but in fact ended up feeling worse afterward.
The bottom line: Revenge mostly comes from an understandable desire for control over one’s social environment, and humans have a number of creative, entertaining, and rewarding ways of getting that. Over the long-term, however, actually taking revenge against relationship partners appears to prevent old wounds from healing. Research findings are increasingly showing that the proverbial sweetness of revenge is an expected, but short-lived pleasure, and followed by a longer-lasting bitterness. People might get more from slowly getting acquainted with revenge’s more tepid cousin, forgiveness, a subject for another post.
1Yoshimura, S. M. (2007). Goals and emotional outcomes of revenge activities in interpersonal relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 87-98.
2De 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.
3Carlsmith, K. M., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). The paradoxical consequences of revenge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1316-1324.
Dr. Stephen Yoshimura – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Yoshimura’s research focuses on how people communicate during relationship challenges, and what happens as a result of those challenges. He has also published on the topic of experience and expression of revenge and jealousy.