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Why you want revenge—and why you shouldn’t get it

Revenge costs you more than you think. Not only will it not make things right, it usually makes things MUCH worse. Here’s why.

Ed Latimore
Ed Latimore
Writer, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Have you ever been wronged by someone and felt an overwhelming desire to get even?

The urge for revenge is a powerful and deeply ingrained human instinct that has been shaped by our evolutionary history. In this article, we’ll explore the psychology of revenge, its short-term and long-term effects, and how we can break free from the cycle of retaliation.

The Power of Revenge

Retaliatory aggression, or revenge, is often a way for people to cope with the pain of rejection and insult. When we feel wronged, our natural instinct is to strike back, hoping to make the other person feel the same pain we experienced. This desire for revenge is so strong that it can even provide a temporary mood boost.

In a fascinating study by Chester and DeWall (2017), students were given the opportunity to stick pins in a voodoo doll representing a grader who had given them negative feedback on their work.

The results showed that those who had the chance to retaliate experienced a greater boost in mood compared to those who didn’t. This highlights the immediate emotional gratification that revenge can provide.

The Evolutionary Roots of Revenge

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that the inclination for vengeance is deeply ingrained in our DNA (McCullough, Kurzban, & Tabak, 2013).

In the absence of laws and formal justice systems, our ancestors relied on the threat of retaliation to maintain social harmony and address acts of unfairness.

Incentives are powerful. In theory, an eye for an eye makes everyone blind, but in reality, it makes everyone act right because no one wants to lose their eyesight

The Long-Term Consequences of Revenge

While revenge may provide short-term emotional relief, research suggests that it can harm our well-being in the long run.

In a study by Carlsmith, Wilson, and Gilbert (2008), participants played a game in which they could cooperate or betray one another for financial gain. Those who were betrayed had the opportunity to retaliate. While they initially felt great after seeking revenge, they ultimately experienced a lower overall mood than at the experiment’s start.

This finding highlights an important point: dwelling on revenge can magnify the significance of the original offense in our minds, giving it more power over our emotions.

This reminds me of an ad hoc definition of trauma I learned, where it’s like you experience the event every time you think of it as if it had *just* occurred. Perhaps memory is the key to dealing with trauma and helping us forgive, for when we think about something intensely, it reinforces the wrong done to us. That makes it difficult to let it go.

This isn’t therapy. This isn’t a cure. This isn’t a replacement for justice. It’s just a technique I’ve used to stop feeling so much anguish towards the people from childhood who hurt me.

Breaking Free from the Cycle of Revenge

So, how can we break free from the destructive cycle of revenge?

The key lies in recognizing that the universe is indifferent to our individual struggles. We are all insignificant specks in the grand scheme of things, and the bad things that happen to us are often not personal attacks but rather the result of others pursuing their own self-interests.

Here is a quick way to help you stop being held hostage by how you feel about something in the past that you can’t do anything about.

When someone wrongs us, it’s important to remember that their actions reflect their own issues and are not a targeted attack on our worth as individuals. It likely would have been someone else if it hadn’t been us. This perspective shift can help us release the anger and resentment that fuels the desire for revenge.

Forgiveness: A Path Forward

While the word “forgiveness” often requires extensive explanation to avoid misinterpretation as a call for lawlessness, it is a powerful tool for overcoming the pain of offense.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning wrongdoing or absolving someone of the consequences of their actions. Instead, it’s a personal choice to release the emotional burden of anger and resentment.

Research has shown that forgiveness can improve mental and physical health outcomes. A meta-analysis by Worthington and Scherer (2004) found that forgiveness interventions can significantly reduce anxiety, depression, and stress while increasing self-esteem and hope.

To Forgive or Seek Revenge?

The desire for revenge is a natural human instinct, rooted in our evolutionary past. While it may provide temporary emotional relief, seeking revenge can ultimately prolong our suffering and keep us trapped in a cycle of negativity.

By recognizing the indifference of the universe and the impersonal nature of most offenses, we can begin to let go of the anger and resentment that drive the desire for retaliation.

Forgiveness, though often misunderstood, is a powerful tool for healing and moving forward. By choosing to release the emotional burden of past hurts, we open ourselves up to greater peace, resilience, and well-being.

Remember, the path to true freedom lies not in revenge, but in the courageous act of forgiveness.


- Carlsmith, K. M., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008). The paradoxical consequences of revenge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(6), 1316-1324.

- Chester, D. S., & DeWall, C. N. (2017). Combating the sting of rejection with the pleasure of revenge: A new look at how emotion shapes aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(3), 413-430.

- McCullough, M. E., Kurzban, R., & Tabak, B. A. (2013). Cognitive systems for revenge and forgiveness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(1), 1-58.

- Worthington, E. L., & Scherer, M. (2004). Forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilience: Theory, review, and hypotheses. Psychology & Health, 19(3), 385-405.

Ed Latimore
About the author

Ed Latimore

I’m a writer, competitive chess player, Army veteran, physicist, and former professional heavyweight boxer. My work focuses on self-development, realizing your potential, and sobriety—speaking from personal experience, having overcome both poverty and addiction.

Follow me on Twitter.

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