What revenge seekers are really after

Martin Daks | Jun 17, 2020

Many people who are wronged in the workplace would welcome the chance to exact retribution, or would at least think about it. Who wouldn’t want to stick it to the sadistic boss, or the colleague who has taken credit for others’ work?

But just punishing that person might not be enough, research suggests. People contemplating payback want the person who wronged them to recognize what he or she did, and they’ll even settle for less severe retribution if they know their perpetrator understands the reasons for it, according to Carnegie Mellon PhD candidate Andras Molnar, Chicago Booth’s Shereen Chaudhry, and Carnegie Mellon’s George Loewenstein

Revenge is obviously a popular theme in life as well as art—from Shakepeare’s Hamletwho kills his father’s murderer, to the film Gladiator’s Maximus Decimus Meridius, who similarly kills and dies to avenge his murdered family. 

But what drives revenge, even for far less violent actions? Is a person trying to achieve fairness or retribution, or to make their perceived transgressor understand what she did wrong and perhaps never do it again? 

The researchers looked at real-life revenge stories posted on Quoraa popular question-and-answer website. In the nearly 100 stories studied, the best predictor of how many views and upvotes a story received was whether the transgressor learned the reason for his punishment—above and beyond whether he suffered. This suggests that, at least in the retelling, the satisfaction of revenge lies largely in sending the transgressor a message.  

But the researchers then conducted controlled experiments to see if they could establish whether revenge seekers act deliberately to affect the beliefs of whomever has wronged them. In an online experiment, participants were told that a coworker had allocated the bulk of a task to the study participant even though both would receive the same fixed compensation. But the coworker was also eligible for a $1 bonus, and the participant was given the option to reduce that amount (by a little, a moderate amount, or a lot), as well as to send a message that would reveal some information. Participants could use the message to explain why the bonus was cut and even their role in doing so.

Of nearly 200 participants, 87 percent decided to reduce the allocator’s bonus, and just under half of those selected the message that said, “Your partner decided to reduce your bonus because you were unfair to them.”

A large-scale follow-up experiment forced nearly 2,000 participants to put a value on exacting revenge—if they wanted to slash the coworker’s bonus by 90 percent, they couldn’t also explain that they had done so and why. When forced to make such a trade-off, many participants settled on sending a note that said the bonus had been reduced “because you were unfair to your partner,” without revealing that the partner herself had reduced the bonus. In the results, the degree of punishment was inversely related to the level of explanatory information delivered to the transgressor.

“Our results strongly support the idea that punishment decisions are at least partially motivated by belief-based preferences,” the researchers write. “Specifically, punishers have a strong desire for transgressors to know that they have been punished, and for what reason.”

The findings have implications for the legal system, where the best outcome for victims may not necessarily be to severely punish the wrongdoers. “If victims are provided alternative ways of communicating messages to transgressors, through, for instance, mediation or victim impact statements, they may be willing to settle legal suits for lower amounts or to ask for lower punitive damages,” the researchers write.