The Psychology of Revenge
Dr. Kaser-Boyd writes about topics in psychopathology and personality dysfunction. This is the first in her series of blog posts.
The Los Angeles Times recently published a six-part article entitled “Framed,” by Christopher Goffard. The case involved a teacher’s aide named Kelli Peters. The parents of a six-year- old at the school believed she locked the boy out of the school on purpose. His parents, both attorneys, went through the normal steps to have Ms. Peters disciplined or terminated. Failing this, they reportedly hid drugs in her car and then made an anonymous call to the police. The case was stunning because of the viciousness of the plot against Kelli Peters and its gross overreaction to what was perceived as the intentional mistreatment of the little boy. Goffard writes that the Prosecution had the challenge of explaining why these parents wanted to ruin Kelli Peters, in response to a provocation that “seemed irrationally small.” The judge called it “incomprehensible.” Some parents would understand the parents’ initial reaction to their son being locked out of the school-- for them it wouldn’t be “irrationally small.” The parents likely thought their initial effort to get Kelly Peters terminated from the school would be effective, given their years of training as problem-solvers and as people with power. When this failed, their initial feeling of helplessness over their son’s lock-out was amplified. Their status and power were clearly challenged.
What kind of person seeks revenge? Psychological science has explored this question. A large number of seemingly normal people may wish for revenge in egregious acts, such as the bombing of the World Trade Center. Research on mass murderers notes that they are often consumed by a wish for revenge against people in general, blaming society for their failure or rejection. According to the Department of Justice, approximately 20% of the run-of- the mill homicides in the United States are revenge-motivated. In Death Penalty cases, we see grieving and angry family members seeking punishment by death. Of course, the theme of vengeance runs through classic plays and novels [Think Hamlet, Medea, the Godfather.]
Revenge for smaller slights is harder to understand. In cultures that are more communal, it may stem from something that causes someone shame in his community. In American culture, the motive for revenge is more likely to come from personal humiliation. This may be solely related to the individual’s personality, as with a person with narcissistic personality traits who experiences a narcissistic wound.
The psychological literature informs us that people who are more vengeful tend to be those motivated by power, by authority, and by the desire for status. If you are a power-seeker, revenge can serve to remind others you’re not to be trifled with. This seems the likely dynamic of the malevolent conduct of the parents. The revenge-seeker wants to see the target suffer. Revenge, specifically seeing their target suffer restores their self-worth because it shows they are not powerless. The literature further informs us that, while many people may fantasize about revenge, few people actually move to action, perhaps weighing consequences such as further retaliation, fleeting feelings of empathy for the target, or, as in this case, arrest. Empathy aside, why wouldn’t the revenge-seeker not think about getting caught? In the practice of forensic psychology, when I ask defendants if they thought about getting caught, most say they never imagined they would get caught. They were consumed with the act itself.
Research has also found that those who have acted in revenge often feel worse after the act. This is not because of guilt but because much of their time and energy was consumed thinking about and planning the act and because, afterwards, they didn’t feel as good as they thought they would.
In reality, revenge is often costly.
Nancy Kaser-Boyd, Ph.D. is a forensic psychologist in Los Angeles. She is a member of the Los Angeles County Superior Court Psychiatric Panel in Criminal Court and an expert witness on mental states. She is co-author of the recently released book Forensic Psychological Assessment in Practice.