Revenge Is the Glue That Holds Society Together

“My name is Inigo Montoya …”

“Revenge” and “order” are two ideas that don’t really seem to go together. At best, revenge is a romantic idea that tends to create messy situations for lovable movie characters; at worst, it can lead to the type of bloody catastrophe that plagues generations. But still, behavioral scientist Dan Ariely thinks revenge has a pretty unexpected upside: It’s a concept that helps to create more trusting, less chaotic societies.

“Each person is kind of a small policing force,” Ariely says. “That’s why revenge can actually regulate good behavior.”

Here’s the logic: Imagine a world where everyone, recognizing that vengeance wouldn’t actually improve their situation, rationally turned the other cheek when they were wrong. If someone didn’t hold up their end of a bargain, the betrayed chump would just drop the whole thing, and the crook would come away scot-free. But humans aren’t rational, and revenge is a powerful feeling, one that can drive people to sacrifice their own comfort and money just to watch a cheater suffer — which means it can be a powerful deterrent as well.

And while “revenge” is a bit of a dramatic word, this idea doesn’t just apply to dramatic or high-stakes situations. To explain how it might play out in the real world, Ariely often points to a well-known experiment called “the trust game,” developed by behavioral economist Ernst Fehr. Here’s how it works: One player (let’s call him Inigo) is offered $20, which he can either keep or give to a second player (let’s call him Rugen). If Inigo gives the cash to Rugen, then the money quadruples. At that point, Rugen can either give half of it back to Inigo, or he can keep all of it for himself.

If everybody involved is perfectly rational — which, for economists, means completely selfish — then Inigo would just take the money and go home, since he knows that Rugen, also being perfectly rational, would keep the $80 for himself. But the researchers found that Inigo will usually give the money to Rugen, and Rugen will usually give $40 back to Inigo.

“Turns out, people are much nicer than economic theory predicts,” Ariely explained in a 2010 video for Big Think. “I think the world would actually be quite terrible, if everyone were perfectly rational.”

That sounds pretty warm and fuzzy, but in some cases, Rugen does take the money and run. That’s when the experimenters try something new: They offer Inigo a deal. If Inigo gives them money, they’ll hunt down Rugen. For every dollar Inigo gives them, they’ll take two dollars away from Rugen. So now the question becomes: Will Inigo give up his own money to get revenge?

“Everybody who’s had a divorce or a big breakup knows the answer,” Ariely said in the video: More often than not, the Inigos of the world will pay to make the Rugens of the world suffer. In the original experiment, Fehr and his colleagues also scanned the brains of the revenge-takers, and found that their brains’ pleasure centers lit up in response to the promise of revenge. Vengeance feels good.

“All of this suggests that punishing betrayal, even when it costs us something, has biological underpinnings,” Ariely wrote in a 2011 Huffington Post column. And that desire for revenge, he argued, also has broader societal implications: During the 2008 financial meltdown, when the U.S. government bailed out the banks, “one nearly apoplectic friend of mine promoted the idea of an old-fashioned solution,” he recalled: “‘Instead of taxing us to bail out those crooks,’ [the friend] ranted, ‘Congress should put them in wooden stocks, with their feet and hands and heads sticking out. I bet everyone in America would give big bucks for the joy of throwing rotten tomatoes at them!’”

As this friend and many Americans saw it, the banks were behaving like cheating Rugens: People gave the banks control of their savings, and the banks walked away with the money. “The public remained livid, because the central issue of rebuilding trust was neglected,” Ariely wrote. And that turned into a desire for executives covered in tomato sauce.

Zooming out even further, the threat of revenge can preserve peace between multiple societies. Think of the mutually assured destruction, the military doctrine developed to prevent nuclear powers from using their weapons (or the plot of the movie Doctor Strangelove, in which a U.S. attack on the U.S.S.R. would trigger a doomsday device wiping out all life on the planet).

“That’s kind of the idea of revenge,” Ariely told me. “The idea is that you know if you misbehave, the other party will do something terrible to you, much bigger than what you did to them.” Trust and revenge, in other words, are two sides of the same coin: When individuals, communities, and countries know that breaking deals leads to payback, they’re less likely to break them. So long as revenge is a possibility, order is more likely to prevail.

Revenge Is the Glue That Holds Society Together