'It's Not About the Money. It's About Sending a Message!': Unpacking the Components of Revenge
57 Pages Posted: 22 Feb 2020 Last revised: 14 Apr 2021
Date Written: April 14, 2021
What drives victims toward revenge? The most prevalent theories of why people punish others focus exclusively on the desire to discourage bad behavior in the future (deterrence), the desire to equate material outcomes (distributive justice), or the desire to cause comparative suffering to the offender. However, these motivations cannot explain why many acts of revenge seem narrowly designed to change the perpetrator’s beliefs above and beyond what can be attributed to the desire to cause suffering, and without any hope for downstream behavior-change or impact on material outcomes—what we call sending a message. Across three studies, including an observational study featuring real-world revenge stories and a pre-registered experiment (N = 1,705) involving a stylized workplace interaction, we both introduce and experimentally test the idea that purely belief-based motives can drive revenge behavior—that avengers care what offenders believe. We not only demonstrate a direct causal link between belief-based motives and actual revenge decisions but also show that many subjects are willing to compromise on distributive justice to make sure that the offender understands the circumstances of punishment. Additionally, we find very little evidence that the primary concern is to cause comparative suffering, and also demonstrate that the preference for affecting offenders’ beliefs cannot be sufficiently explained by deterrence motives. This work suggests that allowing victims to communicate a message to the offender could be a useful tool in organizational grievance procedures to help satisfy victims, reduce the prevalence of more deleterious forms of revenge, and curtail cycles of aggression.
Keywords: Beliefs, Belief-based utility, Communication, Justice, Morality, Punishment, Revenge
JEL Classification: C70, C91, D03, D63, D82, D83
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation