The passion for revenge is strong and sometimes almost overwhelming. But our
intuitive logic about revenge is often twisted, conflicted, parochial, and
dangerous. Revenge is a primitive, destructive, and
violent response to anger, injury,
or humiliation. It is a misguided attempt to
transform shame into pride. Many governments, religions,
traditions, and cultures provide guidance on when revenge may and may not be
sought. Unfortunately this guidance is often unsatisfactory because it excludes
groups of people, often mistreats women, generally leads to escalation, is unevenly
applied, and typically leads to prolonged and escalated violence. Choose
- The desire to get even,
- Retaliation for injury, loss, or humiliation,
- An attempt to transform shame into
- Seeking symmetrical injury, harm, or loss
Roots: from revengier : re- + vengier, from Latin vindicāre, to avenge again,
Revenge is directed passionately at a specific target with the
doing them harm because you believe they have intentionally done you harm. It is the dark
side of reciprocity.
Defending honor, getting even, pay back, reprisal, retribution, retaliation,
revanche, vengeance, vendetta, vindication, and avenging a wrong are all synonyms for revenge
Although competition has its roots in vengeance, it can be satisfied
constructively through organized sports and other formalized contests.
Revenge is the hurtful side of reciprocity, and
many terms are related to the concept.
- Justice is a state-sponsored formal approach to revenge under the law. It
establishes the sovereign state as the only legitimate agent of
violence. It is
not always satisfactory because it is impersonal, imperfect, and substantially
delayed. Many people believe that OJ Simpson literally got away with murder,
while innocent people are put to death by the state.
- Deterrence is a dispassionate response calculated to change the other's
behavior in an on-going relationship or negotiation by imposing a negative consequence
(punishment) for their decision. The judge sentences the criminal as a
deterrent, not to seek revenge. It is
nothing more than equivalent retaliation in a calculated
Deterrence is cerebral and “just business”; revenge is visceral and
- Reprisal is a retaliation for an injury with the
inflicting at least as much injury in return.
- Retribution: a measured or restrained reprisal; a proportional
response intended to communicate a message: “this is how wrong your actions
- Reparations are payments intended to compensate a victim for a
loss. While these may be largely effective in repairing the damages
resulting from loss or theft of material goods, it is impossible to restore a
lost life, a physical injury, loss of health, destruction of unique objects or
those with sentimental value, or a missed opportunity such as a successful
career or time spent with a loved one. It is also difficult
to restore lost pride. The goal of reparations is to keep promises and restore
a damaged community.
- Remorse is feeling genuinely bad about the hurt I have caused and I
take responsibility for the hurtful choices I
- Atonement is remorse followed by reparations. It is similar to
- Retaliation is the idea of fair payback, often expressed as “an eye
for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and is captured in traditions such as
Talionic Code. The concept is to cause as much pain to the
aggressor as he has caused you to suffer. Unfortunately the magnitude gap—the
fact that pain felt is more intense than pain inflicted—often causes the violence of the retaliation to exceed that of the original
offense. Unending escalation, destruction, and violence often results. Also,
because many losses cannot be restored or undone, the retaliation does not
provide satisfying reparations to the victim.
- Vengeance is pursuing harm to your offender as retaliation for the
wrong you perceive they caused. It is a passionate desire for revenge.
- Avenging a wrong is pursing revenge to punish those who you hold
responsible for a loss to yourself, or someone else you respect.
- A Vendetta is an on-going private feud where the members of the
family of a murdered person seek to avenge the murder by killing the slayer or
one of the slayer's relatives.
- Money accepted as reparations for physical injury or death may be called
This reflects the belief of some that reparations for physical injury or death
are never sufficient unless they include violence to the offender.
- Reconciliation is the process of letting go of revenge.
It usually requires forgiveness.
The Paradox of Revenge
Revenge originates from the primal need for self-defense. In today's world,
it is often abused as a destructive and futile response to anger or
Exhaust all alternatives before considering revenge, and use revenge only if it is your only effective
self-defense. Why do you believe it is your only alternative? Why do you believe
it will be effective? Describe why you believe revenge addresses the cause and
will have the effect you want.
Most strategies for revenge fail because they attempt to change the
past. Unfortunately once the damage is done and the injury, insult, humiliation,
or other loss occurs, the clock cannot be turned back and the loss is permanent.
In addition, the value of the loss to the offended is seen as much greater than
any benefit gained by the offender. As a result the offense represents an
unrecoverable loss to society as a whole. Successful strategies for revenge look
far into the future and recognize that the cycle of vengeance and retaliation
can only spiral toward tragedy and are best stopped before they are started.
Revenge is a doomed attempt to eliminate shame and
increase stature by asserting
dominance. It fails because asserting dominance does not increase stature,
instead it usually increases violence. Also,
cannot be coerced, it has to be discovered.
Evidence indicates that
forgiveness increases self-esteem and decreases
Economics and business decision-making recognize sunk costs as the
costs that have already been incurred and which can never be recovered to any significant
degree. Economic theory proposes that a rational actor does not let sunk costs
influence a decision because past costs cannot be recovered in any case. This is
also called the bygones principle; let bygones be bygones. This recognizes that
you cannot change the past. The fallacy of sunk costs is to consider sunk costs
when making a decision. Sound business decisions are based on a forward-looking view,
ignoring sunk costs.
Revenge is an attempt to recover sunk costs; it is an example of the sunk
Forgiveness is a decision to move forward regardless of sunk costs. Sound
emotional decisions, like sound business decisions, are based on a forward-looking view.
Why Seek Revenge?
Why do people seek revenge? What are people looking for? What do they hope to
accomplish? Why is the passion so strong? People seek revenge when:
- They feel they have been attacked and suffered some unjust loss or
injury. As a result they are feeling
anger, hate, jealousy,
envy, or shame.
- They are humiliated, especially if they are made to feel
foolish, ridiculous, stupid, or ashamed. People seek
revenge against the more powerful while they pity the less powerful.
- They feel they have to “defend the honor” of themselves, their family,
some other group they identify with.
The goal of revenge is to erase shame and
humiliation and restore pride.
What people generally want from revenge is to:
- Restore their dignity, and increase their
pride or stature.
- Restore the “honor” of the offended group by avenging the
- Remember a loved one or ancestor. The slogan “September 11, 2001, we will
never forget” is seen frequently and is used to sustain the war on terrorism.
War memorials serve a similar purpose. In contrast, consider how the Amish
Nickels Mines Pennsylvania reacted after five of their children were
senselessly murdered. They razed the schoolhouse where the tragedy occurred to
remove the most prominent symbol of the tragedy and leave a quiet pasture in
its place. Their goal is to forgive and move on.
- Teach a lesson to the aggressor,
- Punish people who cheat and break rules; ensure they learn their lesson.
- Act as a deterrent to predatory behavior,
- Obtain acknowledgement from the aggressor that they were wrong and they
- Obtain a sincere apology and know the aggressor is remorseful,
- Demonstrate their power so they no longer feel powerless,
- Obtain reparations; get paid back for their losses, and settle the score
- Make the aggressor suffer and feel their pain,
- Transform themselves from prey to predator, from powerless to powerful,
and from shamed to proud,
- Tell their side of the story; set the record straight from their point of
All of us have suffered losses. We have all been unlucky, ignored, picked on,
overlooked, lied to, betrayed, injured, cheated,
trespassed upon, and stolen from. We may have lost
our jobs, lost our houses, suffered from disease, lost substantial sums of
money, divorced, or been permanently injured. Many of us have been victims of
greater injuries such as rape, assault, abuse, death of a spouse or close family
member, or violent crime. Our suffering is real, and we are not alone.
Many of these losses were unfair and unjust. We often believe we know who is
to blame for much of our loss and suffering. We have been injured and we believe
it is our right that things be set right. Persecution, cruelty, attacks,
trespass, suffering, hardships, and injury create a great burden for us to bear.
It seems only fair that we are compensated for these losses. Our grievances are
legitimate. We deserve to be compensated.
We may allow ourselves to submit to urges originating from this life-long
accumulation of such grievances. This may result in
road rage, or other
irresponsible behavior. People may feel less
for their actions when they can
blame someone for their
grievances. People whose temperament is dominated by pain are easily provoked to
hate. They may be
described as “having a chip on their shoulder.” Perhaps they believe they
are their suffering.
However, many of our losses are permanent, or not something that others can
or will repair. We may be intensely and carefully counting up debts that can
never be repaid. Often we simply have to decide to absorb, accept, overlook, and move
beyond our loss, without compensation or revenge. Often the best decision is to
simply let this pain go, get over it, and move on with our life. Whether or not
we are entitled to revenge, it is probably not a constructive path to follow.
Often it is best to forgive and forget.
Since only victims seem entitled to revenge, it is essential to claim the
mantel of victim before seeking revenge. However, in most protracted conflicts
it is difficult to identify the perpetrator and the victim because hostilities
escalate gradually over time. Each side feels they have the most valid claim to being
the victim. It is rarely clear “who started this”. It often depends on how long ago
the salient narrative begins. Often rivalry for most rightful victim status has
to be resolved before reconciliation can begin. The victim needs to have their
loss validated and their power restored. The perpetrator needs to have their
moral status restored. Until deciding who is who, these different needs cannot
be effectively met.
The Tragedy of Revenge
In the novel Moby Dick, captain Ahab is obsessed with seeking revenge
on the white whale, Moby Dick. His long struggle results in the death and destruction of
the entire crew except for Ishmael the storyteller. Unfortunately the
destruction described in this fictional account is often too accurate an account of revenge in the real world.
Maytal Khatib was Druze teenager who left her house unescorted one day. When
she returned that night she failed to prove to her brother she was still a
virgin. Although there was no evidence at all she had sex, her brother
strangled her to death to protect the honor of his family, just in case she had
lost her virginity that day.
The atrocities of Nazi Germany in World War II are largely attributed to
revenge for Germany's humiliation after World War I.
The Paths of Vengeance
Understanding what can trigger our urge to seek revenge, and how we can resolve our
concerns constructively helps us to cope with our feelings. The
following figure illustrates choices we have and paths we can take to either
prolong or resolve the pain and violence. Use this like you would any other map: 1) decide
where you are now, 2) decide where you want to go, 3) choose the best path to
get there, and 4) go down the chosen path.
This diagram is an example of a type of chart known by systems
analysts as a state transition diagram. Each colored elliptical bubble represents a
state of being that represents the way you are now. The labels on the arrows
represent actions or events and the arrows show paths into or out of each state. You
are at one place on this chart for one particular relationship or
incident at any particular
time. Other people are likely to be in other places on the chart. This is
similar to an ordinary road map where you plot where you are now, while other
people are at other places on the same map. Begin the analysis at the green “OK”
bubble, or wherever else you believe you are now.
OK: This is the beginning or neutral state. It corresponds to your
being content and not contemplating revenge.
The green color represents safety, tranquility, equanimity, and growth
Insult: We were OK until something happened to provoked our hurt,
shame, or humiliation.
Although the cause could be any number of
things, perhaps we were humiliated, we will use the term “insult” to describe any of these provocations.
After reflection and reappraisal, the offender who made the original insult may
decide it was unjustified and could later feel shame or
guilt for his attack.
Humiliation: Your ego is bruised, your
pride is hurt, and now you are mad as hell! You have
just been humiliated, and you don't like feeling foolish. The orange color
represents the danger and potential violence that often results from humiliation.
Forgiven: Even though you have not been offered
an apology, you decide to let go of the hurt. You forgive and gain a serene inner
peace and satisfaction for yourself.
Apology Accepted: The offender offers an effective
apology. You feel vindicated because he has acknowledged
his responsibility in
causing your harm.
Legal Recourse: Work within the laws of your local, regional,
national, and international governments and the by-laws of your organization to
address your grievances.
Constructive Revenge: Decide to better yourself to clearly
demonstrate your stature is superior to your adversary's.
Revenge: I attack and injure you in an attempt to transform my shame into pride.
Avenged: I feel pride, at least momentarily, because I have
demonstrated my courage and wit by taking bold action against you. The yellow
color represents the danger from the retaliation that is likely to follow.
Retaliation: Your adversary strikes back in response to your
revenge. This retaliation often escalates the hostilities and
of the magnitude gap—inflicting harm is more painful to the victim than it is satisfying to
While many cultures provide guidance for seeking revenge, most of it is
conflicted, incomplete, and destructive. For example the advice to seek “an eye
for an eye” is heard as often as the advice to “turn the other cheek”.
A complete, coherent, and constructive system for seeking revenge would have
- It would serve to reduce violence globally; in
the short term, in the long term, within the group and outside of the group,
- It would lead to a constructive solution of the problems faced by the
victims and the aggressors.
- It would increase the stature of everyone involved
and reduce their humiliation,
anger, and hate.
- It would be finite; the revenge seeking, the pain, the hurt, and the
retaliations would end quickly, permanently, and in a way that is satisfactory
to all. It would lead to a de-escalation of hostilities in the short term and
the long term.
- It balances the needs of all parties, and grants autonomy to women on a
par with men.
- It works both locally and globally to create satisfactory solutions within
the family, village, nation, and around the globe.
- It recognizes the past cannot be changed and we
have only the present and the future.
The best approach I am aware of is to continue a constructive
dialogue with the aggressor; work to understand each
person's point-of-view, humanity, dignity, and
needs. Increase empathy; both
of the aggressor for the victim and of the victim for the aggressor. Continue
the dialogue until either an apology or
forgiveness results. Continue the
dialogue until the
karma runs over the dogma. The South African
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
assisted with this process to speed reconciliation after the horrors of
Another helpful approach is to seek “constructive revenge”. Here you take action to
better yourself and clearly demonstrate that your stature exceeds that of your
adversary. Your pride increases because of an authentic
increase in your stature and your adversary may feel
shame by comparison. This is a direct and constructive
approach to transforming shame into pride.
Work within the laws of your local, regional, national, and international
government and the by-laws of your organization to address your grievances.
Myths and Misconceptions
Many cultures promote the idea of collective punishment as a form of
revenge. The concept is that it is fair, and perhaps expected, that anyone
associated with the aggressor should be punished for the original insult,
loss. According to this principle it is OK to punish any man because one
individual man raped one individual woman. This is clearly an over
generalization based on a non-representative sample. It is an invalid excuse for
violence against many innocent people. It is destructive and unjustifiable.
Many religions promote the idea of Divine Vengeance. The concept is
that only a god or supreme being is competent to judge a person's behavior and deliver
punishment to avenge their bad behavior. In the beliefs of the Christian traditions
every person faces their “judgment day” upon their deaths and they either live
in the paradise of heaven or suffer in the fires of hell for all of
eternity. Unfortunately this does not seem to serve as an effective deterrent,
and evidence for any of this is speculative at best.
The paradox of revenge has inspired many thoughtful quotations. Here are
- “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” ~ St.
- “There is no revenge so complete as forgiveness.”
~ Josh Billings
(1818 - 1885)
- “In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it
over, he is superior.” ~ Sir Francis Bacon (1561 - 1626)
- “Live well. It is the greatest revenge.” ~ The Talmud
- “You cannot change the facts of the past but you can change the meaning of the past.” ~
- “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects
revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is
love.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 - 1968)
- “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” ~ A.J. Muste
- “Remorse cannot be coerced, it has to be discovered” ~ Leland R. Beaumont
- “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth and the whole world would soon
be blind and toothless.” ~
- “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”
- “Think through the consequences of your actions for the next seven
generations.” ~ Native American wisdom
Revenge: A Story of Hope, by Laura Blumenfeld
Evil : Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, by Roy F. Baumeister, Aaron Beck
Prisoners of Hate : The Cognitive Basis of Anger, Hostility, and
Violence, by Aaron T. Beck
Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes, by James Gilligan
Destructive Emotions : A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama by Daniel Goleman
Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank, by Robert W. Fuller
On Apology, by Aaron Lazare
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Create Your Life, Your
Relationships, and Your World in Harmony with Your Values, by Marshall B.
Rosenberg, Arun Gandhi
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me),
by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
Revenge, Robert J. Stainton, University of Western Ontario, April,
Instrumental and Socio-Emotional Paths to Intergroup Reconciliation
and the Need-Based Model of Socio-Emotional Reconciliation, 2006
To appear in: A. Nadler, T. Malloy & J.D. Fisher (eds.) Social
Psychology of Intergroup Reconciliation.
In My Country,
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Juliette Binoche Director: John Boorman
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville