Social psychologist Ian McKee, PhD, of Adelaide University in Australia, studies what makes a person seek revenge rather than just letting an issue go. In May 2008, he published a paper in Social Justice Research (Vol. 138, No. 2) linking vengeful tendencies primarily with two social attitudes: right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance, and the motivational values that underlie those attitudes.
“People who are more vengeful tend to be those who are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status,” he says. “They don’t want to lose face.”
In his study, McKee surveyed 150 university students who answered questions about their attitudes toward revenge, authority and tradition, and group inequality. He found that the students whose answers showed a deference to authority and respect for traditions and social dominance, had the most favorable opinions about revenge and retribution.
Those personalities, McKee says, “tend to be less forgiving, less benevolent and less focused on universal-connectedness-type values.”
There’s also a cultural dimension to people’s predilection for revenge, says revenge researcher Michele Gelfand, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park. She and her collaborators Garriy Shteynberg and Kibum Kim have found that different events trigger the revenge process in different cultures; American students feel more offended when their rights are violated, whereas Korean students feel more offended when their sense of duty and obligation is threatened, they show in a paper in the January Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. That distinction could fuel intercultural conflicts when one side seeks vengeance for a slight the other didn’t even know it committed. For example, an American might be more likely to seek revenge on someone who impinges on his or her right to voice an opinion, whereas public criticism that embarrasses a Korean in front of his or her friends might be more likely to trigger revenge feelings.
Gelfand has also found that collectivists are more likely than individualists to avenge another’s shame. To collectivists, shame to someone with a shared identity is considered an injury to one’s self, she explains. As a result, she says, “revenge is more contagious in collectivist cultures.”
“You just don’t realize those situations are construed [by the other culture] as very important and self-defining,” Gelfand says.
The emotions that fuel revenge may differ across cultures as well, says Gelfand. In her studies, she has found that anger often drives the vengeful feelings of people in individualistic cultures, while shame powers revenge in collectivist ones.