Psychologist Michele Gelfand has long been curious about conflicts and how we might negotiate our way out of them. She’s especially intrigued by the psychological desire to retaliate — and the fact that this urge is so often contagious.
People not involved in the original conflict may sometimes feel like taking revenge for the harm done to others in their group. They might even take it out on relatives of the perpetrator or others perceived as belonging to the same group, even if those people hold no responsibility whatsoever.
Gelfand, now at the University of Maryland, tackles the topic with a range of research tools, from brain imaging in the lab to fieldwork in the Middle East. In an article in the 2019 Annual Review of Psychology, she and her colleagues explain what revenge research has taught us so far. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
This is a fascinating subject, yet it seems difficult to study. How do you go about it? Do you seek out people who already feel like taking revenge, or do you get them to feel that way?
As a social scientist, I’ve always been a proponent of having multiple methods to study anything, as every method has its strengths and limitations. You can manipulate contexts where people in the laboratory feel like they have been intentionally harmed. You can also conduct surveys to ask people about times they’ve felt they’ve been harmed in the past, and study their reactions and their emotions in those contexts.
And in some recent work that we’ve published on honor cultures — where there is a willingness to retaliate against people to defend one’s reputation even if doing so is very risky or costly — we have even used computational models, to try and simulate the circumstances under which revenge might turn out to be beneficial. These simulations suggest that unreliable institutions and a generally tough environment may be crucial conditions for the evolution of honor cultures.
In your review, you write that “revenge has not received much attention in the history of intellectual thought.” Why do you think this subject has been largely ignored for so long?
It’s interesting, because revenge — which we define as motivated retaliation after one perceives harm to one’s well-being — is a universal phenomenon. It is very common, and it takes a serious toll. In the US, for example, desire for revenge has been implicated in over 60 percent of school shootings and over a quarter of bombings.
It may be that early philosophers were more focused on virtue, considering revenge to be a very negative phenomenon. Only recently have researchers started to theorize that the urge to retaliate might reflect something really fundamental about human psychology, with both positive and negative aspects.
When revenge is studied, it is often treated as something to be avoided or prevented. Yet you and your coauthors stress that “vengeance can be functional and even necessary.” Really?
Yes, and there are a number of different reasons for that. From an individual perspective, revenge has long been thought to be a deterrent, a way to signal to others that one is strong and not to be messed with.
More recently, the focus has shifted to cultural processes, suggesting that revenge also reflects how groups operate, and helps people work together at times when cooperation is essential for group survival. By discouraging the violation of social norms, revenge may help to keep the group together.
If revenge can be useful, would you go as far as recommending it in certain situations?
I’m not sure I would recommend it, but we can understand why it exists, and why it may be needed. When institutions upholding the rule of law are absent or weak, offering very little protection, revenge can serve an important function. In such a context, people who are expected to seek revenge if they are harmed will often manage to ward off aggression. So it really serves a function there.
You mention that the Bible pivoted on the subject of revenge between the Old and New Testaments, moving from “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” to “turning the other cheek.” How might this be explained by the times and places in which each text was written?
Arguably, the New Testament was written during a period when we had larger states, more stability and social organization, and where revenge would therefore have been less valuable compared to the days of the Old Testament. But we would need to test this more directly.
Even the “New” Testament was written a long time ago. Yet we are still struggling to suppress people’s urge to take revenge. Does your research point to new ways of doing so?
Strengthening institutions certainly helps — for example, by improving people’s trust in the police or the legal system. When you can outsource these kinds of punishments and believe that they will be fair and just, revenge becomes less attractive.
Last but not least, I think we should help people understand how to manage conflicts, in the same way that we teach mathematics and physics and biology in schools today. Negotiation and conflict management should be a required course.
Should the old adage that “revenge is a dish best served cold” be taught in classrooms? Is it advisable to let things cool down before you do something you might regret later?
I think that’s right. People often seek revenge when they are angry, which may reduce their self-control. Revenge often involves risk, which people have a natural aversion to, and anger is one of the strongest factors that can overcome this aversion.
Later, when people get more psychological distance from what happened, that might reduce the anger and the revenge instinct.
Another thing we might teach is that research shows that personal gain is rare and feelings of regret may soon set in.
Indeed. The classic idiom “revenge is sweet” does have some empirical support — neuroscience research shows that reward centers in the brain are activated when people are just thinking about taking revenge, and people forecast that they are going to be happy after seeking revenge.
But other research shows that this is short-lived, and that people are often not as happy as they thought they would be. In that sense, revenge can be thought of as bittersweet, involving positive and negative feelings.
Do you remember a time when revenge felt very satisfying to you personally?
Luckily, I can’t say I have any particular stories.
Perhaps even if you had, you might have been apprehensive to discuss it. Though revenge is the driver behind many famous stories and movies, it is not something we tend to be proud of.
I think that is largely true in the US and some other Western countries, but I wonder whether it is universal. In contexts where revenge serves a function in managing one’s reputation, people might be more willing to talk about these stories, and they might be a source of pride instead of embarrassment.
This would be an interesting hypothesis to test. There is certainly some universality to revenge, but there is also a tremendous amount of cultural variation. In some cultures, seeking revenge is seen as absolutely necessary to restore one’s reputation. The importance of honor is instantiated in many ancient proverbs, such as the Arabic “dignity before bread.” Given its importance, people are often willing to fight to restore their honor.
Strikingly, this might even extend to taking revenge on people who were not involved before.
Yes. Probably the most interesting thing we have learned is how contagious revenge can become, across people and time. One of the things we consider to be really fundamental to this is what we call entitativity, which is really just how interchangeable people are believed to be. For example, if you and I are entitative, and someone harms you, that feels as if it was harm to myself, and motivates me for revenge.
Outgroup members can be perceived as interchangeable as well. If someone who harmed you is related to another person, I could seek revenge on this person I have never had any contact with. This way, conflicts can escalate from the individual to the group level, even across generations, all because of this perception of entitativity.
How might this insight help us to break the cycles of violence between groups?
One of the ways in which people try to reduce these issues is by broadening the group identity, promoting a national identity instead of a tribal one. A key issue, however, is that we shouldn’t just operate on the idea of identity. A shift in perspective should be accompanied by measures to end discrimination and promote a fair allocation of power and resources between groups as well.
National identities can help to bring people together on a national level, but that might equally stimulate conflicts between different “nations.” Could there be a way to promote such a shared identity for humanity as a whole, even in the absence of an extraterrestrial common enemy?
Yes, I do believe a global identity — perhaps engendered by collective threats such as climate change — has the power to unite humans to achieve unprecedented levels of cooperation. But that, of course, is a very optimistic view, and there is a lot of work left to be done before we get there.
Author: Tim Vernimmen is a freelance science writer based near Antwerp, Belgium. He did not write this out of spite. This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazine, an independent journalistic endeavor from Annual Reviews.