Steve Yoshimura is a Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Montana, Missoula. His research focuses on the connection between emotional experiences, interpersonal relationships, and human well-being. He teaches on communication and health, communication in personal relationships, nonverbal communication, and communication research methods. He is a co-author of the forthcoming book, Communicating Revenge in Interpersonal Relationships, published by Lexington Press.
You’ve probably heard the saying that “revenge is sweet,” and the tales of revenge that we commonly hear about usually do have an element of victory to them. However, most acts of retribution are not the big dramatic acts that draw headlines, but are usually much less visible, and are not always as sweet as imagined.
Although acts of vandalism, bodily harm, or internet-based revenge easily grab the public’s attention, they can also make a person criminally or civilly liable. Thus, revenge often involves less risky acts such as not returning a person’s calls or text messages, purposefully being unreliable, or being less affectionate toward someone.
Revenge is not always as sweet as imagined partly because people are not very good at knowing how they will feel afterward. And although payback potentially can be sweet, we often underestimate the power that other things in life have over how we feel later. Our later feelings simply don’t depend on revenge alone.
On the other hand, revenge can be aesthetically pleasing, or even beautiful. According to one study, retaliation is seen as particularly artful when it helps other people, is particularly well-fit to the initial offense, or when the outcomes are similar to the outcomes of the initial harmful act.
Revenge can also be satisfying when it seems to cause the offender to understand that they did something wrong. For example, research participants felt better about punishing a free-loader in a cooperative game when the person who was punished sent the person a message at the end of the game saying that they understood why they had been punished.
So the satisfaction – the “sweetness” of revenge seems to come from the way in which it is crafted, performed, and responded to. Revenge is most satisfying not when it is deeply harmful, but rather when it has outcomes similar to the initial offense, and when it seems to affect the offender’s understanding that they did something wrong.