Definitions of revenge in the scholarly literature vary, but there is considerable agreement that the phenomenon these definitions are intended to describe is both ubiquitous and universal, appearing repeatedly and frequently throughout human history and across diverse cultures and relationship forms. Indeed, so common are acts of revenge in literature, historical records, and current events that some experts have concluded that the desire for vengeance ranks among the most powerful of human passions.
For purposes of this entry, revenge is defined generically as action that repays harm with harm. Consistent with this definition, Roy Baumeister has argued that, at its core, revenge entails a reversal of roles in which the original perpetrator becomes the victim. Revenge can thus be seen as a perversion of the maxim “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” in which an individual does unto others what has been done to him or her.
Revenge is often treated in the scholarly literature as if it is the polar opposite of forgiving. There may be reasons to question this viewpoint, however. For example, Everett Worthington has argued that there are a variety of ways to reduce the complexity of negative emotions (which he calls unfor-giveness) that often arises when we experience offense or injury at the hands of another and that forgiving and taking revenge are just two of these. From this perspective, revenge and forgiving share a common identity as responses to interpersonal harm or strategies for reducing unforgiveness. In actuality, research suggests that desires for revenge and the inclination to forgive tend to be inversely related to each other, but that, in itself, does not imply that they need be antithetical to each other. Indeed, under certain circumstances—such as when forgiving is used to demonstrate one's moral superiority over an offender—forgiving may in fact serve vengeful purposes.
Empirical research on revenge is rather limited at this time despite that much has been written about the topic from philosophical and theoretical perspectives. In part, the lack of research in this area may stem from a tendency among scholars to focus their attention on acts of revenge that are extreme and violent. Not only are such extreme acts of revenge less amenable to systematic investigation, but existing research suggests that they may reflect just “the tip of the iceberg.” In everyday life, milder, more mundane acts of revenge may be far more numerous and frequent than extreme acts of revenge.
At present, the literature on revenge in organizations offers the richest descriptive base for understanding when and how people take revenge and the kinds of consequences that accompany a decision to retaliate in response to perceived provocation. For example, the work of Thomas Tripp and Robert Bies and their colleagues indicates that (a) the desire for revenge is typically triggered by provocations involving the obstruction of goals, violation of rules or norms, and/or threats to social status or power; (b) acts of revenge can take diverse forms that vary in severity, kind, and relation to the initial offense; and (c) revenge may achieve a variety of outcomes such as eliminating injustice; restoring a threatened sense of self-esteem, self-image, or reputation; equalizing power; deterring future acts of harm; and teaching the harmdoer a lesson.
Based on the findings of their research, Tripp and Bies have argued that scholarly discussions tend to portray revenge in a biased fashion that emphasizes its destructive, antisocial potential while rejecting the possibility that revenge can sometimes be used for and actually achieve constructive and prosocial ends. Recent research on revenge in romantic relationships corroborates this viewpoint to some extent. For example, participants in a study by Susan Boon, Alishia Alibhai, and Vicki Deveau were interviewed about an episode in which they “got even” with a current or former romantic partner. As part of the interview, participants were asked to consider the consequences that followed their decision to repay harm with harm. Most participants indicated that their vengeful actions had both positive and negative consequences (e.g., redressed the negative feelings they experienced in the aftermath of the provocations that fueled their desires for revenge, elicited empathy in their partners, taught their partners a lesson, gave their partners a taste of their own medicine, etc.; made them feel guilty or bad, compromised their images of themselves as good, moral people, failed to resolve the original problem with the relationship). It was less clear, however, that the positive or constructive consequences they reported were also prosocial in nature (i.e., likely to benefit others, rather than themselves). Participants only rarely described constructive outcomes that benefited other people, although a small proportion of the sample did claim that their actions benefited their relationships with their partners.
Finally, several scholars have argued that people's attitudes toward revenge are morally ambivalent. The results of research on revenge in relationships appear to support such arguments. On the one hand, the considerable majority of participants in Boon and colleagues' interview study asserted that revenge is morally wrong, arguing, for example, that getting even is unethical and immoral, a childish and immature response to wrongdoing, and that better (i.e., nonvengeful) responses to wrongdoing exist. On the other hand, participants in another of Boon and Deveau's studies were no happier with the situation when an aggrieved individual (the victim in a hypothetical love triangle) decided not to retaliate against his partner than when his retaliatory gesture went to excess. This latter finding is consistent with arguments in the literature that people often perceive those who do not retaliate for harms committed against them as weak and ineffectual.
Anger in Relationships, Dark Side of Relationships, Enemies, Forgiveness, Transgressions, Vengeance
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