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 Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who 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 Quora, a 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.”