Revenge, Bitter or Sweet? Both, It Turns Out

Admit it.  We've all had those moments where we'd like the friend who didn't invite us to her party get the stomach flu, right?

Well, maybe it's just me.  But a new study says that revenge really is not so sweet.  I had a work friend who said don't get revenge, get even.  Yeah, she screwed me a couple of times, too.

But despite popular consensus that “revenge is sweet,” years of experimental research have suggested otherwise, finding that revenge is seldom as satisfying as we anticipate and often leaves the avenger less happy in the long run, according to

Now, new research from Washington University in St. Louis is adding a twist to the science of revenge, showing that our love-hate relationship with this dark desire is indeed a mixed bag, making us feel both good and bad, for reasons we might not expect.

“We show that people express both positive and negative feelings about revenge, such that revenge isn’t bitter, nor sweet, but both,” says the study’s first author, Fade Eadeh, a doctoral student in psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences. “We love revenge because we punish the offending party and dislike it because it reminds us of their original act.”

The findings are based on three experiments in which about 200 people in each experiment were asked to fill out online questionnaires rating the intensity of moods and emotions triggered by their reading of brief news accounts, including one that described the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. forces as a retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The experiments were designed to explore whether people are right in thinking that revenge has the potential to make them feel good, despite recent research that suggests otherwise.

“We wondered whether people’s intuitions about revenge are actually more accurate than originally anticipated,” Eadeh says. “Why is there such a common cultural expectation that revenge feels sweet and satisfying? If revenge makes us feel worse, why did we see so many people cheering in the streets of D.C. and New York after the announcement of bin Laden’s death?”

Or after 9/11, if you believe that nitwit, Trump. But that's another story.

In experiment one, participants read either a “justice-is-served” news account of bin Laden’s killing or a nonpolitical control passage about the Olympic Games. They then rated how strongly their current feelings matched up with a random list of 25 adjectives, such as happy, edgy, satisfied, irritated, mad, upset or sad.

Although this framework is similar to one used in a 2014 revenge study, researchers modified the data analysis phase to focus on measures of emotion, as opposed to mood. This study and a 2008 revenge study led by the late Kevin Carlsmith at Colgate University both focused on mood and both found little evidence that revenge contributed positively toward it. Instead, people felt worse after taking revenge.

“In the case of the bin Laden assassination, this person is associated with an obviously horrific act — the 9/11 attacks, which provides reason why revenge may be an indirect source of negative feelings,” Eadeh says. “What our current research shows is that the way you measure feelings can be quite important.”

This analysis replicated previous findings that showed reading about revenge put people in a worse mood, but it also found that the same experience was capable of generating positive feelings.

“Our paper consistently shows that the emotional consequences of revenge are a mixed bag, in that we feel both good and bad when we take revenge on another party. This counters some previous research on the topic, by our own lab and others, that revenge is a wholly negative experience,” Eadeh says.


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