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Surprising Science

Revenge Causes Psychological Harm to the Avenger

What victims really want from the person who wronged them, according to studies conducted in the US and Europe is a sense of genuine remorse along with a sincere apology.

Success, they say, is the best revenge. By displaying personal triumph, you can simultaneously shame the behavior of your aggressor and still do well for yourself.

This kind of thinking appears as moral sophistication. It moves us beyond Moses’ famous dictum of “an eye for an eye” — intended to improve upon the disproportionate tribal vengeance that ruled his day — and the standard of “proportional response” that guides nations in conducting so-called “just wars.”

Alas, a very real psychological toll is taken on those who practice vengeance-through-success, according to Glen O. Gabbard, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. When our relationships and behavior are shaped by a desire for satisfaction against a specific person or event, he says, we fall into the same traps as someone seeking outright revenge.

Columbia University Professor of Buddhism Robert Thurman takes the reasoning one step further in his Big Think interview. The concept of loving one’s enemy is not a slavish attitude, but one that display’s fierceness and toughness as a path toward healing:

“If you go around nursing hatred and vindictiveness and how to get back at [an enemy], you’re hurting yourself. Hopefully if you love your enemy, you have no enemy. But when you oppose that person, you can have tough love; you can have fierce compassion. When they sense that you’re doing it because you want their betterment, because it’s not good for them to be mean to you and so on, then it has a little different edge to it.”

When people seek revenge, either by taking direct action against the person who wronged them, or by pretending as though they were not affected by the wrong, it not only fails to prevent future harm, but it also adversely affects the revenger.

What victims really want from the person who wronged them, according to studies conducted in the US and Europe, is a sense of genuine remorse along with a sincere apology. When they don’t get this, or skip straight to exacting revenge, the result is psychological and social suffering.

Read more at The New York Times.

Photo credit: Shutterstock


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