What makes revenge satisfying? Is it merely ensuring the transgressor receives their just deserts, or is it also about ensuring that they understand the error of their ways. Mario Gollwitzer and colleagues have attempted to find out in a series of studies in which students were tricked into thinking they'd been treated unfairly by a fellow student.
'To bring him back to a more just sense of what he owes us, and of the wrong that he has done to us, is frequently the principal end posed in our revenge, which is always imperfect when it cannot accomplish this.' Adam Smith
Does it matter if the punished don't understand what they did wrong?
Eighty-three student participants wrote a short essay before swapping it with a partner located in another room so that they could mark each other's work. The participants were led to believe they'd received an unfairly harsh mark, although in reality there was no other student and the mark was a fabrication. Participants were told that receiving this poor mark had implications for the remuneration they would receive. Another twist to the set-up was that the participants took part in a last-minute lottery which either led to their partner losing some money (chance retribution) or gave the participants the choice over whether to punish their partner or not (by reducing their payment). Finally, some participants were given a chance to send their partner a message and to receive one back.
Results from this first study were mixed. On the one hand, participants whose partners lost money by chance reported feeling just as satisfied afterwards as participants who were given the chance to exact deliberate revenge on their partner. On the other hand, among the avenging students, those who received a message back from their partner, which suggested they'd seen the error of their ways, tended to report feeling more satisfied than those who received no such message. The first outcome suggests the sweetness of revenge is mostly about restoring a sense of justice, whereas the latter finding suggests that there's also need for offenders to understand what they did wrong.
A second study attempted to resolve some of these contradictions. It was similar to the first except it was course credits rather than payment that was on the line, and in this case there was no chance for deliberate revenge, only a lottery that led to the unfair partner losing course credit (chance retribution) or gaining even more course credit. Again, some participants had the chance to exchange messages with their partner. Participants whose unfair partners ended up losing course credit only felt more satisfied (than participants whose partners gained credit) if they also received a message from their partner acknowledging that they'd got their just deserts for being unfair earlier. This outcome supports the idea that the sweetness of revenge comes from the offender recognising the error of their ways.
The final study was the least equivocal. This time the participants played a collaborative anagram game with a partner who was in another room. Again, in reality there was no other partner. After the game, the participants and their 'partners' had to choose how to share their raffle ticket rewards. The scenario was fixed so although the participants and their partners had contributed equally, the partners proposed that they were given the lion's share of the raffle tickets. The participants were given the direct opportunity to punish their partners by reducing their ticket allocation - some took this opportunity and some didn't. All participants then exchanged messages with their partners. The key finding this time was that participants who opted for revenge felt more satisfied than those who didn't, but only if they received a message from their partner which suggested he or she had understood the punishment.
Gollwitzer's team concluded that retributive justice is about more than just an equalisation of suffering, it's also about making the offender aware that his or her actions were wrong. 'Achieving such a form of understanding can therefore be regarded an effective element in restorative justice or mediation procedures,' the researchers concluded. 'Revenge can be satisfactory to victims, but only if offenders understand why punishment has been inflicted on them.'
Gollwitzer, M., Meder, M., and Schmitt, M. (2010). What gives victims satisfaction when they seek revenge? European Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.782