Revenge is a trap the wise do not fall into, goes the diplomatic saying. Still, wanting to give someone a taste of their own medicine is a common desire.

In trivial situations, like a traffic quarrel, or even in more serious situations, when we are betrayed, despised, or attacked, it feels natural to respond to malice with malice, to indifference with indifference, to harsh words with an equally incisive answer. It seems fair to take revenge, despite Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek.

We inherit a sombre history that validates revenge as a justified reaction to all kinds of injustice. Since ancient times, the principle “an eye for an eye” has been used as a standard to apply sanctions. Entire collections of works from different fields present cases of personal vengeance, which turned the victims into aggressors, apparently restoring the balance.

With distant origins and universal extension, up to this day, vengeance plays the role of a strong emotional trigger which calls for action. Faced with the blows they receive (figuratively or literally), people from all cultures and societies foster the thought of vengeance without necessarily manifesting it in the same ways (anthropology shows that some are more vindictive than others).

The bigger picture

The decision of whether or not to resort to revenge is influenced by several factors, including the perception of morality, necessity and the costs of revenge. Vengeance depends on the norms which are characteristic of a group, such as its cultural and religious values.

A desire to set the record straight occurs in societies based on a highly developed sense of honour, in communities which accept and even encourage a personal way of doing justice. In Albania, for instance, the economic and social crisis of the last decades brought about the revitalization of the Kanun code, a medieval code of conduct which regulates all aspects of life, consecrating the idea of blood-revenge. Although the laws of the state condemn the ancient practices of the Kanun, its precepts have abusively permeated the daily life of citizens lacking the support of the authorities.

Vengeance as a form of justice also works in areas which do not benefit from a legal system (patriarchal or tribal communities) or where the power of the group undermines that of the state (for example, the Mafia).

In an extreme way, religion also exercises a certain paradoxical influence when it comes to not turning the other cheek. The authors of the 9/11 events received the final instruction to not seek vengeance for themselves, but for God. Aside from radical models, the principle also appears in regular contexts.

In a series of experiments in 2007, participants were asked to read an account of certain violent acts of revenge, which either contained biblical passages or predicted that the described acts were approved by God, or did not have any special mention. After reading, the subjects had to accomplish tasks which offered the possibility to be aggressive or neutral with their study partners. The people who had been exposed to passages from Scripture, as well as those who had been confronted with fragments related to Divinity, showed an increased aggressiveness towards their partners. This tendency was especially observed among Christians, suggesting that violence justified by religion may give rise to a similar form of manifestation.

In collectivistic cultures, revenge is motivated by shame, whereas in individualistic cultures it is anger that unleashes retaliation.

The differences in vindictive tendencies are also culturally established. As indicated by the research of Michele Gelfand, psychology professor at the University of Maryland, American students fight back if their fundamental rights, like the right to free speech or to an opinion, are broken. Korean students react quicker if their sense of duty is injured.

A second difference occurs at an emotional level: in collectivistic cultures, revenge is motivated by shame, whereas in individualistic cultures it is anger that unleashes retaliation. Furthermore, revenge is more contagious in collectivistic cultures. Representatives of this type of culture protect not only their own interests but also those of others: they stand up for their fellow man, having a deep sense of belonging.

Taking a peak behind the curtain

Apart from influences from the environment, character traits intensify or weaken the desire to retaliate. Among these, sensitivity to rejection generates defence mechanisms that are similar to vindictive ones. If someone is afraid that they will be pushed aside or even experiences exclusion at maximum intensity, there is a risk of them rising up against those who caused their suffering.

A series of studies conducted by David Chester, at the University of Virginia, in collaboration with Nathan DeWall from the University of Kentucky, reveals that people suffering more on account of insults or social rejection tend to sanction disturbing actions, seeking to turn pain into pleasure, by activating the reward system in the brain. Some even succeed, but not for long.

Another experiment led by professors Chester and DeWall, published in March 2017, proves that emotions, or better said the anticipation thereof, produces the desire to pay someone back in their own coin. After administering a pill presented as an emotion inhibitory agent (placebo), in the absence of the conviction that vengeance will be a relief, subjects abandoned the thought of taking justice into their own hands.

Results analysis confirmed two complementary hypotheses: first, revenge is satisfactory because people credit this projection regarding themselves; and second, if they do not expect the act of revenge to change their state for the better, people will give up retaliation and will seek alternative methods to alleviate their suffering.

Numerous studies connect a narcissistic personality with aggressiveness, which explains why narcissists are more predisposed to act violently towards other hostile persons. The narcissist’s habit of punishing those who do not treat them according to their expectations is especially maintained in cases of rejection, when their ego and self-esteem are hurt. Individuals focusing on the importance of personal and family reputation, or men wanting to protect their honour (studies show that, unlike women, men think of revenge more often) also declare themselves in favour of vengeance.

Numerous studies connect a narcissistic personality with aggressiveness, which explains why narcissists are more predisposed to act violently towards other hostile persons.

On the other hand, a 2009 report from social psychologist Ian McKee from Adelaide University in Australia, correlates retaliation with assuming certain traditional values. McKee’s observations point to the fact that respect for traditions, authority and social hierarchy includes, in most cases, positive opinions when it comes to vindictive acts. Traditionalists “tend to be less forgiving, less benevolent and less focused on universal-connectedness-type values”, he says, predicting that they are motivated “by power, by authority and by the desire for status”.

The instances when we are treated inadequately give birth to negative emotions, out of which the most frequent are anger, humiliation and sadness. Of these, anger is the first to be associated with vengeance. This is why individuals who are incapable of exercising self-control make the top of the list of people willing to give tit for tat. Professors Chester and DeWall underline the importance of self-control in the evolution of the vengeance impulse. They say that people who can control their own urges are more forgiving. Their efforts are reflected at brain level by the activation of the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for the inhibition of impulsive actions).

Revenge is a deadly weapon

Although hard to quantify, going from wishes to actions falls under the influence of self-control, but also of other personal or circumstantial factors. According to a survey from 2003, only 29% of the respondents had ever put their desire to take revenge into practice. The lack of reaction is most common in situations when the wrongdoer asks for forgiveness, when there is a way to make up for the damage done, or when sanctioning the aggressor would lead to an even greater revenge. Fear of not causing a chain reaction convinces many to remain passive when faced with ill treatment. An interesting study shows how people who have been insulted choose not to retaliate for fear of potential consequences of them having taken action.

The escalation of revenge is just one of the reasons why we should try to resolve conflicts in an amicable way. Often taking justice into one’s own hands leads to criminal acts: over 20% of crimes committed in the US and over 60% of open fire cases in American schools are related to the desire to “settle an account”.

Another disadvantage is felt in the medical field. If forgiveness reduces stress levels, decreases depression and anxiety risk, regulates the heart rate and blood pressure, turning hard feelings into action deeply affects our health. Contrary to the idea that vengeance is sweet, vengeance is actually a deadly weapon.

Kevin Carlsmith, professor at the University in Hamilton, says that instead of closing an unfortunate chapter, the strategy of “an eye for an eye” does the exact opposite: it keeps the wound open. The experiment he conducted with two other peers from the University of Virginia backs up his statement: in a fictitious investment game, researchers assured the subjects that they will receive equal wins if they choose to cooperate, saying that those who refuse the investment will receive a bigger amount of money, at their colleague’s expense.

The answers given placed those who did not get the chance to punish the manipulator higher on the happiness scale.

The participants’ decision was manipulated by an outsider which convinced them to invest equally, without doing that himself. The indignation generated by the traitor’s duplicitous behaviour caused most of those who lost to financially punish him when given the opportunity. Subsequently, all the members of the analysed groups filled in forms for measuring their degree of satisfaction. The answers given placed those who did not get the chance to punish the manipulator higher on the happiness scale. Paradoxically, these subjects declared that they would have felt better if given the opportunity to take their revenge. Those who were given the opportunity said they would have felt worse if they hadn’t had it. In other words, although people believe paying someone back in the same coin would make them happy, there is a major discrepancy between their beliefs and reality. The so-called emotional release obtained by revenge is a mere myth contradicted by science.

Forgiveness for the long term

Vindictive behaviours are satisfactory only in the short term. In the long run, they leave their mark on our state of mind, keeping the wound open, says Carlsmith: “When we don’t get revenge, we’re able to trivialize the event. We tell ourselves that because we didn’t act on our vengeful feelings, it wasn’t a big deal, so it’s easier to forget it and move on. But when we do get revenge, we can no longer trivialize the situation. Instead, we think about it. A lot.”

In the opposite camp, there are voices that say revenge has paved its way in space and time due to certain concrete benefits. The merit to discourage attacks, to restore the victims’ dignity and punish evil are listed as some of the benefits.

If we look at where we stand today, we might say tolerance towards this current of thought might lead us to what Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The old law of ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everybody blind.” Only forgiveness can maintain our sight and vision intact.

“Many people think of forgiveness as letting go or moving on”, says researcher Bob Enright. However, “true forgiveness goes a step further, offering something positive—empathy, compassion, understanding—toward the person who hurt you.” To forgive does not mean to allow the wrongdoer to escape punishment, or to show weakness. On the contrary, to be able to forgive means power, because it immunizes the body and strengthens self-esteem. Everyone can benefit from forgiveness, concludes professor Loren Toussaint, one of the editors of the book Forgiveness and Health.

To fight against one’s impulses is not easy, especially when the spirit of justice, protecting one’s interests and the desire not to be trampled on push us to keep a tight score of our wrongdoers’ mistakes and pay them back accordingly. There is, however, a better and safer way to be reconciled to ourselves: the way of the God who “will freely pardon” (Isaiah 55:7).

Genia Ruscu has a master’s degree in counselling in the field of social work.