A car cuts you off. Somebody takes your wallet. A person bumps into you on the street. A feeling wells up inside: You want revenge. Research shows that the impulse to lash out is similar to that of a food craving—and by satisfying it, you demonstrate that you’re not someone to be messed with. Yet while it’s possible that acting on such urges may feel good at first, negative long-term consequences can make revenge bittersweet.
To research anger—an emotion tied to revenge—some scientists have used EEG, a way to measure electrical activity of neurons in the brain. They’ve found that when a person is insulted, a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex lights up—which happens to be the same area that illuminates when someone sees delicious food and has the compulsion to eat it, says Eddie Harmon-Jones, a neuroscientist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, who has worked on these studies. The greater the activity in the prefrontal cortex, the stronger one’s urge to react. Whether he actually does, however, is a different story.
“Humans have learned many ways of controlling their behaviors, particularly damaging behaviors,” says Harmon-Jones. Some people can suppress vengeful impulses, for instance. Those who can’t might fight back with either physical or verbal aggression, he says.
“That’s really what revenge is: It’s a tax,” on offensive behavior, says Mike McCullough, a psychologist at the University of Miami and author of Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. If someone is disparaged, he might respond by insulting the trespasser’s manhood or virtue—“any trait that’s important,” says McCullough. “[Revenge] is a way of deterring individuals from harming you and maybe also advertising to bystanders that you’re not the kind of person who just lets it go.”
Historically, revenge may have benefitted individuals and their families or small, traditional societies by warning off offenders, perhaps resulting in feelings of satisfaction. McCullough warns, however, that revenge is associated with an emotional mixed bag. At first it can feel great, he says, but then anxiety about potential retaliation can set in. Plus, nowadays those who take revenge might encounter disrespect from peers and could face societal repercussions, such as losing standing in a community, getting fired, or even going to jail, says McCullough.
To keep vengeful urges at bay, “Thinking about consequences is something that we can do,” says McCullough, or try conjuring positive thoughts. Alternatively, entertain the spite but resist acting on it. Write the angry email, for example, but don’t send it. Then you can enjoy revenge’s sweetness without the bite.