One of the emotions that almost everyone has experienced, but also the least easy to talk about, is the desire of revenge. When our loved ones get hurt or we’re victims of a great humiliation, it is easier to fill our heart with hate claiming vengeance more than forgiveness.
For many people, applying the “eye for an eye” is quite normal, so natural that they don’t even question it. They feel having the “right” to avenge the affront or return the damage taken. Behind the desire of revenge there’s the idea that once achieved our goal we’ll feel better. However, Confucius said once: “Before you embark on the journey of revenge dig two graves.”
Gandhi, who also agreed with this view, said: “Eye for an eye and all mankind will end up blind.”
What is revenge?
Revenge seems to be one of our deepest instincts. And by the moment instincts have quiet always an evolutionary purpose, there’s the theory that revenge has a protective function within the social context. For example, imagine you have a neighbor who often organizes parties with loud music late at night.
If you think this is a rational person who does not react badly, you’ll probably ask him politely to turn down the music volume. However, if you think he’s someone irrational and dangerous it is more likely you’ll follow a different route and take revenge on him, but hidden.
In this case, revenge would help you avoiding a direct confrontation where you can end up being hurt. Therefore, it would be a kind of defense mechanism by which you can make sure your rights are not infringed again and at the same time that you will not suffer further damage.
However, in most of the cases revenge doesn’t produce any benefit, only serves to cause pain to others. As a matter of fact, we can’t forget that revenge is not a synonymous of justice, but vengeance always hides negative feelings such as anger and hate. Its main purpose is not to compensate the damage but to hurt others. The revengeful persons want to “run the blood” because they believe that this will make them feel better, they believe that another’s pain will ease their own.
Does revenge heals the wounds?
This question was investigated by researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard, who recruited a group of people to participate in a curious experiment. These persons were involved in an investment game in which, if everyone cooperated, all of them would gain the same amount of money. However, if someone refused to invest his money, that person would also be entitled to a share of the profits. The trick was that the researchers had prepared a person to refuse to invest, and as a result, this person received twice the money than the others.
How would everyone feel? If they were given the chance to avenge that person, would they do so?
The researchers continued with the second part of the experiment. They told some participants that they could engage in another game in which they could invest a portion of their profits to punish those who refused to invest. However, before doing so, the researchers asked them to estimate how well revenge would make them feel. Everyone agreed that they would feel much better.
However, once completed the revenge, it was found that those who hadn’t had a chance to get revenge were happier and satisfied. On the contrary, who had avenged didn’t feel as good as expected but experienced more anger. Why?
Psychologists are convinced that people who do not seek revenge try to understand the other’s behavior minimizing the consequences of their actions and, ultimately, they focus on forgiveness. On the other hand, those seeking revenge are focusing on anger, which makes that the feeling grows further, entering in a vicious circle marked by negative emotions.
Therefore, vengeance not only hurts the other person but also us. Feeding the thirst for revenge is equivalent to feed negative feelings that can end up causing us more harm than the insult itself.
So that, one way or another, revenge is always a bad choice.
Carlsmith, K. et. Al. (2008) The paradoxical consequences of revenge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 95(6): 1316-1324.