Why Revenge Is Bittersweet

Revenge may be sweet, but it also leaves a bitter aftertaste.

The nuances of emotions evoked by acts of revenge are universal and profound (you’d know this well even if your closest encounter with revenge has been watching the latest episodes of “Game of Thrones”). It may seem puzzling why avenging a wrongdoer provokes such a mixed bag of emotions.

A study published  in the upcoming edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology has looked into this matter. The researchers found that both conventional wisdom about sweetness of revenge and previous studies finding bitterness in revenge are likely correct.

“We show that people express both positive and negative feelings about revenge, such that revenge isn’t bitter, nor sweet, but both,” said researcher Fade Eadeh, a doctoral student at the Washington University in St. Louis said in a statement. 

Eadeh and his colleagues conducted experiments in which about 200 people read news briefs. These included one about U.S. forces’ killing of Osama bin Laden and the same news but altered to remove wording that hinted at retaliation. The participants also read a nonpolitical news post about the Olympic Games. The participants then rated the intensity of their feeling using a list of 25 adjectives, including happy, edgy, satisfied, irritated, mad, upset or sad.

 

The results consistently show that the emotional consequences of revenge “are a mixed bag, in that we feel both good and bad when we take revenge on another party,” Eadeh said.

An urge to seek justice and punish wrongdoers seems hardwired into the human brain. Even babies as young as 3 months old may have a grasp of this, according to a 2011 study published in the Developmental Science journal. It found that babies preferred looking at people that helped others than those that harmed others. Other studies show that the brain areas in charge of making crime and punishment judgments overlap with areas that process reward, which explains the pleasure in punishment. 

As for the bitterness we may feel,“we love revenge because we punish the offending party and dislike it because it reminds us of their original act,” Eadeh said.

Understanding the consequences of revenge on people’s moods can help decoding the ways our moral reasoning works but it also may have practical implications, the researchers said.

“For example, the way that people feel about any act of revenge may ultimately have consequences for the way that they respond to the ‘punishers’ in the aftermath of such retaliation,” they wrote in their findings. “Feelings about revenge, defined broadly, are also likely to be relevant to the extent that people support often endless cycles of retribution that may emerge in the context of conflicts between nations or even families.”