Most of us love a story with a happy ending. But a happy ending alone is often not enough. This is because any good story also has some bad guys in it. Many surveys have shown that people are most satisfied when the bad guys pay for their evil actions at the end. The Count of Monte Cristo, one of the most popular novels of all time, is an ultimate example of this: an ecstasy of sweet revenge. In this story, the protagonist goes far out of his way to exact revenge from the people who imprisoned him.
Revenge, however, need not always be motivated by personal loss or injury. Superheroes such as Batman are avengers who exact revenge by seeking out wrongdoers who harm other people. In an odd way, we idolize these avengers, giving them noble titles such as “superhero” and the “dark knight”. This would seem to indicate a strong, natural human predisposition for justice, even when that justice is exacted on someone else’s behalf. In psychology, this type of revenge is often called “altruistic punishment”.
Altruistic punishment refers to the conscious choice of punishing a criminal at a personal cost, even though the avenger was not harmed by the criminal. So it’s not revenge motivated by direct offense, rather, it is revenge for the benefit of others: a revenge for society, if you will. I think anyone who watches movies or television shows can relate to how satisfying it is to see the criminals get nailed at the end. Conversely, I think most people can also relate to how frustrating it can be when the criminal gets away with evil deeds perpetrated against our favorite characters. Personally, this is one of the reasons why I have trouble watching Korean dramas, I get too mad at the bad guys and frustrated that the people around these bad guys are not aware of the evil deeds they commit.
One of the key aspects about revenge that makes it so compelling has to do with how satisfying it can be. Research conducted in 2004 at the University of Zurich used money to demonstrate the lengths to which people would go for this satisfaction. In this research, an “investment game” was used. In this game, each participant was given a small starting sum of money they could use to try to make more money through a series of investment decisions. Some of these decisions involved trusting a second person. In one such situation, the first person had the option of donating $10 to a second person, which would result in that second person accumulating a total of $40 (a successful investment). This second person would then have the option of splitting the $40 earnings with the first person so that each person got $20. As you could imagine, a number of participants in the role of the second person decided to keep the $40 for themselves without sharing. When this happened, the first person was given the chance to punish the second person. One of the punishment options involved the first person spending some of their remaining money to subtract money from the second person. This subtraction was done at a ratio of 1:2 so if the first person spent $1, the second person would lose $2. In short, the first person was allowed to take a personal loss to extract revenge.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, most participants were very willing to take a small personal loss to exact revenge. In many cases, the slighted participants spent as much money (or more) to wipe out the $40 of ill-gotten gains. From a social perspective, having a high desire for fair play is one of the critical requirements that allows social rules to be accepted and implemented, forming the foundation of social order. As described in a previous article we published last year, this basic sense of fairness seems to take hold very early in human development: in infants as young as 5 to 8 months old.
Play fair, everyone.
Huang Xu is an undergraduate student in the School of Life Sciences at Fudan University.
Justin Fendos is a Ph.D. from Yale and a professor at Dongseo University in Busan. He is also the associate director of the Tan School of Genetics at Fudan University, Shanghai, and a National Academy of Sciences Teaching Fellow.