2019-02-25 02:00:00

Retaliation, revenge and punishment

People retaliate for various reasons. They may be simply vengeful or sadistic, the may want to save their face or they may believe in deterring power of retaliation. But what does the retaliation exactly mean and how is it different from revenge or punishment?

Commonly, retaliation is an example of behavioural aggression that follow provocation (Martin, Watson, & Wan, 2000; Wilkowski & Robinson, 2008). Retaliation is a rational and does not contain affect at all. I prefer to say, following Stuckless & Goranson (1992), retaliation is automatic and involves rational responses. We retaliate to discourage the adversary.

Revenge is in turn much more complex phenomenon. It consists an element of retaliation and, yes, it is an action to perceived wrongdoing by someone else, that is intended to harm. But revenge is not simply an example of aggressive behaviour. Revenge is a motivation to act aggressively toward one’s offender (McCullough et al., 2007). Deterrence is the function of retaliation, so what is the function of revenge? Revenge is supposed to give avenger a relief from a feeling of discomfort (Buss, 1961) and help to readdress hurt feelings brought about the perceived wrongdoing (Frijda, 1994). Thus, people seek revenge to restore psychological balance. The concern about one’s well-being is not the only reason of pursuing revenge. For instance, McCullough and colleagues (2008) differ three evolutionary rooted goals of revenge: saving face, moral instruction and social justice (“tit for tat”). Revenge is therefore beneficial because it helps to change incentives of others into own benefits and to avoid imposing costs upon oneself (McCullough, Kurzban, & Tabak, 2013).

What emotions revenge is accompanied by? It is believed that emotions are primary drivers in decision to seek revenge (O’Connor & Adams, 2012). Studies indicate that anger is the most specific emotion to revenge because it’s associated with tendencies to hurt others (Eadeh, Peak, & Lambert, 2017; Roseman, Wiest, & Schwartz, 1994; Wilkowski & Robinson, 2008). Moreover, people who possess anger-related traits such as bitterness, hatred or hostility are also more inclined to have revenge motivations (Berry, Worthington Jr., O’Connor, Parrott III, Wade, 2005). However, revenge may also be accompanied by positive emotions (Wilkowski, Hartung, Crowe, & Chai, 2012). This source of evidence comes from neuroscientific research suggesting heightened activity in the striatum, the brain region which is said to be associated with reward, when people are pursuing the revenge (de Quervain et al., 2004; Knutson & Bhanji, 2006).

What is a difference between revenge and punishment then? Is there any? Researchers argue that revenge and punishment can be distinguished by their respective goals. Whereas revenge is motivated by a yearning to see a transgressor suffer, punishment is motivated by a desire to improve a transgressor’s future behavior (Schumann & Ross, 2010, p.1194). Moreover, punishment is sanctioned by the state (Oldenquist, 1988) and is less emotionally intensive than revenge (Henberg, 1990). Function of punishment is to bring social justice back, whereas more destructive forms of aggression e.g. revenge are fuelled by a desire to improve oneself mood (Gollwitzer & Bushman, 2012).

Does revenge improve mood? Check out here.


  • 1. Berry, J.W., Worthington Jr., E.L., O’Connor, L.E., Parrott III, L., Wade, N.G. (2005). Forgivingness, vengeful rumination, and affective traits. Journal of Personality, 73(1), 183-226.
  • 2. de Quervain, D.J.-F., Fischbacher, U., Treyer, V., Schellhammer, M., Schnyder, U., Buck, A., & Fehr, E. (2004). The neural basis of altruistic punishment. Science, 305, 1254-1258.
  • 3. Eadeh, F., Peak, S., & Lambert, A.J. (2017). The bittersweet taste of revenge: On the negative and positive consequences of retaliation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 68(1), 27-39.
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  • 11. O’Connor, K., & Adams, G.S. (2013). Affective antecedents of revenge. [Commentary on “). Cognitive systems for revenge and forgiveness,” by M.E. McCullough, R. Kurzban, & B. Tabak]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(1), 29-30.
  • 12. Oldenquist, A. (1988). An explanation of retribution. Journal of Philosophy, 41, 464-478
  • 13. Roseman, I.J., Wiest, C., & Swartz, T.S. (1994). Phenomenology, behaviors, and goals differentia te discrete emotions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(2), 206-221.
  • 14. Schumann, K., & Ross, M. (2010). The benefits, costs, and paradox of revenge. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(12), 1193-1205.
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Karolina Dyduch-Hazar
Karolina Dyduch-Hazar
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