The Real Roots of Vengeance and Forgiveness

The Real Roots of Vengeance and Forgiveness

To become more forgiving, we first need to understand why we crave revenge.

Illustration Credit: Jennifer Maravillas

But you don’t have to crack open a novel or sit down to a TV show to get an eyeful of revenge. The desire for revenge is the most powerful cause of violence that social psychologists have identified. About one in five violent assaults and murders are motivated by vengeance. Anthropologists tell us that the desire for revenge was probably one of the earliest motives for war. Today, terrorist organizations recruit human bombs by taking advantage of that desire for revenge.

Vengeance, then, is a very real problem—for individuals, for societies, and for the future of our little planet. The stakes are high; we should be doing all we can to understand the meaning and motivation of revenge—and what we might do to control it. I believe that part of our problem is that we view revenge through the wrong lens. Our distorted view makes the problem even more difficult to solve.

Our Misdiagnosis

Society’s main metaphor for revenge is disease. By default, we tend to think of revenge as a sickness that invades a vulnerable host (perhaps one whose resistance to the infection has been weakened by a poor psychological constitution or a bad childhood), consumes the host (morally, physically, and psychologically), and then wreaks destructive effects on the avenger and the objects of his or her vengeance. Sometimes this disease spreads from one avenger-host to another until the outbreak reaches epidemic proportions. When you hear reporters describe “outbreaks of violence” that are fueled by the lust for vengeance, that’s the disease metaphor at work.

This disease model of revenge received modern psychology’s seal of approval in 1948, when an influential psychoanalyst named Karen Horney described how the desire for revenge could absorb people for a moment in time, or for life—becoming, effectively, a chronic illness: “This drive can be the governing passion of a life—time to which everything is subordinated, including self-interest. All intelligence, all energies, then, are dedicated to the one goal of vindictive triumph.” Horney went on to argue that people prevented from exercising their vengeful impulses may exhibit symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, and insomnia. In short, the desire for revenge produces such a powerful psychological toxin that it literally makes you sick.

This notion that vindictiveness is a sign that something has gone awry in the sufferer, or perhaps is even a cause of mental illness, is now so well established that we rarely think about it. For example, a scholarly paper about the “psychiatric problems” of people whose loved ones had been murdered described “obsessive revenge seeking” as one of the common “symptoms” that people experience after the murder of a loved one. Not only has the person lost someone dear; he or she has contracted a mental illness.

Our Imperfect Cure

If vengeance is a disease, then the cure must certainly be forgiveness. Right? One psychiatrist endorsed a colleague’s work on forgiveness by saying that it “may be as important to the treatment of emotional and mental disorders as the discovery of sulfa drugs and penicillin were to the treatment of infectious diseases.” Another book title dubs forgiveness “the greatest healer of all.” Walk into any bookstore with a decent self-help section, and you’ll find shelves sagging under the weight of instruction books that will show you how to forgive your grudges in a few steps. If the books don’t help, you can find a therapist trained in “forgiveness therapy.”

Make no mistake—more than a dozen scientific studies show that therapeutic approaches to forgiveness really do help people, and that’s good. But my problem with “disease” and “cure” metaphors for understanding revenge and forgiveness is that they cause us to overlook some golden opportunities to make the world a less vengeful, more forgiving place on a much larger scale than self-help books and psychotherapy could ever achieve.

Deep Roots of Revenge

Evolutionary science has produced a very different understanding of both revenge and forgiveness. The desire for revenge is not a disease; instead, it is a universal trait of human nature that was crafted by natural selection because of the critical problems it solved as our species was evolving. Indeed, research from many corners of the scientific world has converged upon the three functions that revenge likely served during human evolution:

1. The threat of revenge was effective in deterring our ancestors’ rivals from harming our ancestors.

2. Revenge helped to dissuade those individuals who were stupid or gutsy enough to actually harm our ancestors from doing so a second time.

3. Revenge was useful for punishing (and reforming) “free riders,” people who enjoy the benefits of a group’s efforts without contributing to those efforts. Our ancestors had to make sure that when free riders failed to “pitch in” and contribute to the common good, they suffered consequences.

The desire for revenge after being mistreated has been identified in virtually every human society that anthropologists have studied. What’s more, chimpanzees, monkeys, birds, and even a couple of species of fish have been shown to use revenge to solve problems related to aggression and cooperation. And rather than residing in some dark part of the brains of psychopaths, the desire for revenge, neuroscientists have discovered, activates the same parts of our brains that are activated when we’re pursuing goals we really care about, or when we’re enthusiastically sitting down to enjoy a good meal. Feeling vengeful when you’ve been wronged isn’t evidence that you’re mentally ill or morally defective. Modern evolutionary science says it’s proof that you’re human.

The Forgiveness Instinct

Evolutionary science has produced a new understanding of forgiveness, too: forgiveness not as “cure” but as instinct—a built-in feature of human nature that has evolved because of its effectiveness in helping our evolutionary ancestors salvage valuable relationships following the betrayals and rifts that inevitably arise in friendships and family relations. Theoretical biologists have come to the surprising conclusion that without the ability to forgive spats like these, social organisms just can’t maintain cooperative relationships. No forgiveness, no cooperation. And without our prodigious abilities to establish cooperative relationships with one another, we wouldn’t be “us.”

Theory aside, there’s also quite a bit of hard evidence for the notion that forgiveness is instinctual: In the last several decades, animal researchers have found about 30 different species of group-living mammals that patch up their valuable relationships after conflict by using physical gestures that scientists call “reconciliation.” These gestures bear an uncanny resemblance to the hugs, backslaps, handshakes, and other physical rituals that people around the world also use to forgive and ask for forgiveness. Also, in a research project, I scoured the available anthropological materials for a random sample of 60 world societies. I found that in 56 of those societies, or 93 percent, anthropologists had documented the existence of the concepts of forgiveness or reconciliation, or both. For behaviors as subtle and quiet as forgiveness and reconciliation often are, a .930 batting average comes tantalizingly close to making forgiveness look as intrinsic to humans’ moral sensibilities as the desire for revenge is.

Evolutionary thinking about revenge and forgiveness encourages us to replace our metaphors of disease and cure with the language of adaptation and instinct. But so what? What can this change of metaphors really buy us? Maybe quite a lot. Rather than thinking of forgiveness as a cure for revenge that people have to learn to use through self-help books, educational interventions, or therapy, thinking of revenge and forgiveness as instincts can help us see that our hunger for vengeance and our desire to forgive are turned on and off by real social conditions. This implies that if we want more forgiveness in the world, what we really ought to do is figure out how to make the world more plentiful in the characteristics that promote forgiveness and less plentiful in the characteristics that promote revenge.

We already know a lot about what those characteristics are. When people live in places where crime and disorder are high, where policing is poor, where governments are weak, and where life is dangerous, they’ll tend to use revenge as a problem-solving strategy, because its ability to punish aggressors, deter would-be aggressors, and discourage cheaters made it adaptive in our ancestral environment. Likewise, we’ll see higher rates of forgiveness under conditions that made forgiveness adaptive in our ancestral environments. This means we’ll see more forgiveness in places where people are highly dependent on complex networks of cooperative relationships, where policing is reliable, where the systems of justice are fair and trustworthy, and where social institutions are up to the task of helping offenders depict themselves as valuable and nonthreatening to the people whom they’ve harmed. If you understand how to influence your household, your place of business, your neighborhood, or your government to create changes like these, then you’re in a position to make the world a more forgiving place, and you don’t need to recommend any self-help books to anyone or put any psychotherapists on retainer.

Michael E. McCullough is a professor of psychology and religious studies at the University of Miami. His latest book is Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct (Jossey-Bass, 2008). For more information about Beyond Revenge, see

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