I recently completed my Honours thesis as a component of my BA degree in Honours Psychology. This thesis involved about a year’s worth of work from start to finish—planning out the study, doing a literature review, developing the materials, getting ethics clearance, running the study, collecting the results, analyzing the results, and writing it all up. Needless to say, it feels good to be finished it. I thought it might be a good idea to talk a little bit about the topic and about what I found. Essentially, the main purpose of the research was to look at the association between ultimate justice and revenge. I’ll start off explaining each of these in a little more detail, and then tell you what I found in my own study.
Let’s start with revenge. Revenge has been a common motif in countless novels, movies, TV shows, plays, and songs. But what exactly is it? Stuckless and Goranson1 provide a pretty good definition of it: “the infliction of harm in return for any perceived wrong.” This wrongdoing may be physical harm, emotional hurt, financial loss, or a threat to one’s social position. Revenge is often seen as a way of getting retribution for this wrongdoing, and may go even further in intensity than the original wrongdoing. Often, one of the main reasons for taking revenge is to relieve the avenger of feelings of discomfort.
Belief in Ultimate Justice
A very well-known concept in social psychology is that of belief in a just world. In simple terms, it is the idea that “people, for the sake of their security and ability to plan for the future, need to believe they live in an essentially ‘just’ world where they can get what they deserve, at least in the long run.”2 Believing in such a world helps people to ignore or minimize the randomness and unpredictability of the world and act as if it is orderly and stable.3 And while believing this has numerous adaptive effects on mental health, motivation, and so on, it can also have some very negative effects as well. When a person who strongly believes in a just world comes across instances of injustice, he or she must come up with some reason why this is the case. In some cases, this can result in victim blaming.4 In other words, when confronted with injustice, a just-world believer may rationalize it by saying that the victim of the injustice was in some way responsible for what happened. He or she might say the victim was a “bad person” and thus deserved punishment. Or, to give another example, the individual may claim that a woman dressed provocatively was at least partially to blame if she is later sexually assaulted.5 But even further than this, people who believe strongly in a just world can even be compelled to rationalize injustices that are done to themselves! For instance, strong just-world beliefs have been associated with a tendency to engage in fewer assertive actions as a result of discontentment with one’s employment.6 Instead of taking action, they rationalize the situation as being “fair.” It might be the case, then, that this sort of people might be less likely to take revenge if they were wronged in some way.
But not all believers in a just world engage in victim blaming. Psychologist Jürgen Maes has suggested that a conceptual difference needs to be made between belief in immanent justice (BIJ) and belief in ultimate justice (BUJ).7 Immanent justice is the tendency to perceive justice within the very events that have occurred. Ultimate justice, on the other hand, is the tendency to believe that forthcoming events will settle any injustice that occurs. Maes has done some research demonstrating that strong believers in immanent justice are the ones most likely to blame the victim, since they are faced with a choice of either saying that the victim was responsible, or acknowledging that the world isn’t actually just. Those who believe strongly in ultimate justice, on the other hand, can witness or experience injustice without blaming the victim or giving up their belief. They simply believe that the victim will be compensated at some point in the future.
My hypothesis, based on the above research (as well as more that I have eliminated for brevity), was that individuals with strong BUJ would be less likely to endorse revenge than individuals with weak BUJ. They should be less likely to say that they would take revenge in response to several hypothetical scenarios. In addition to this, when they did advocate revenge, I predicted that the revenge they would take would be less severe.
I won’t bore you with all the nitty-gritty details, but essentially, I gave 71 participants a survey to measure their level of BUJ. This survey was split up into two sections: BUJ on earth, and BUJ in the afterlife. In other words, how much do you believe that justice is served during one’s present lifetime, and how much do you believe it is served in the next life? I then gave them 10 different hypothetical scenarios where they were wronged by someone else in some way. (I’ve put them in an appendix at the end of this article so you can all think about what you would do in those situations.) I first asked the participants how likely they would be to forgive, avoid, take revenge on, or discuss the situation with the person. After doing that, I asked a few more questions, including whether they should take revenge (as opposed to whether they would) and how severe the revenge would be if they actually did take it.
What I found was that BUJ on earth predicted lower endorsement of revenge overall. So, those people who believed strongly that justice eventually came throughout the course of people’s lifetimes were less likely to say they would take revenge when they were wronged. Interestingly, there were also less likely to say they should take revenge. In contrast, BUJ in the afterlife wasn’t linked to either of these two responses. It didn’t seem to matter whether you believed very strongly that justice came in the afterlife or not in terms of whether you would or should take revenge. However, both BUJ on earth and BUJ in the afterlife were associated with less severe revenge. So in essence, my hypothesis was correct. Belief in ultimate justice was linked with a decrease in revenge, both in endorsement of it as a course of action, and in its severity.
However, there’s another twist to these results. I took a look at the differences between men’s and women’s responses and found that these associations were only present in men, but not women. In other words, if a man had high BUJ, he was less likely to endorse revenge; but there was no difference between women with either high or low BUJ. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t because women were just less likely to endorse revenge at all. Men and women didn’t differ in how much they said they would take revenge, nor in the severity of it. But what might be the case is that men “care” more than women about making sure justice is served. If a man believes that a wrongdoer is going to get his or her punishment in the long run, he may not do anything; but if he thinks the wrongdoer is going to get away with it, his need to ensure justice may result in him taking revenge. Women, on the other hand, might be motivated to take revenge for different reasons. If this is the case, whether or not they believe in ultimate justice may have little effect on their actions. However, that is just one possible explanation for these results. It would need some follow-up research to determine whether this is actually the case or not.
There is one important thing I should note about my thesis. The study was correlational, which means there is no way to determine cause and effect from it. What my thesis found was that BUJ and revenge were related to each other in some way. However, it doesn’t mean that BUJ causes people to be less vengeful. It might be the case that less vengeful people are drawn to ideas about the world being just. Or it might be the case that there is a third variable that causes both of them. For instance, self-esteem may lead people to believe the world is a just place, and it might lead them to be less vengeful. All we know from my study is that the two are linked, but we can’t determine much about why that is.
However, it is interesting in itself to know that belief in ultimate justice and revenge are linked to each other, such that people who believe strongly in ultimate justice are less likely to take revenge than those who have a weak (or no) belief in ultimate justice. Studying revenge is important because revenge can have very real and very damaging implications. Revenge can often start to escalate, so that you hit me, and then I hit you back harder, but then you hit me back even harder, and so on. If we know more about the nature of revenge: why people want it, what makes them carry it out, and how severe they make it; then we might be able to take steps to prevent these sorts of prolonged and ever-escalating conflicts. So although we can’t say for sure that BUJ causes people to be less vengeful, we have a small glimpse into one set of beliefs that is linked with revenge. And that’s something that offers a springboard for future research to answer the question, “Why?”
Appendix: Hypothetical Scenarios
Below you will be asked to imagine a number of hypothetical situations involving actions that may or may not lead to a response on your part. Please try to picture these situations in your mind as vividly as possible, and then answer honestly.
- Your neighbour asks to borrow your lawnmower. You agree. Several hours later, the neighbour returns the lawnmower, but the handle has been broken and the gas tank is empty. The neighbour offers no apology.
- You and your romantic partner have been invited to a party. You, unfortunately, have to work, but your partner attends. During the party, one of your friends gets intoxicated and makes out with your partner.
- You have been told that there are going to be cutbacks at your workplace. You have been there for quite some time, so you feel fairly secure in your job. However, the next day, your boss fires you for inappropriate behaviour. You later find out that one of the newer employees has been spreading rumours about you to try and save his own job.
- You find out from a trusted close friend that your romantic partner, who you have been dating for five years, has been cheating on you with several other people.
- You are walking down the street toward your car. It is a brand new car, and you had to save up for months to buy it. As you approach your car, you see a young teenager scratching it with a key.
- You are taking care of your six-year-old nephew, and taking him for a walk. During the walk, he accidentally damages a woman’s car. The woman sees this, and, in response, she slaps him.
- Your roommate refuses to clean up her dirty dishes, and they are piling up, making it difficult to use the kitchen. Although you have asked her repeatedly to wash them, after five days the dirty dishes are still sitting on the counter.
- You have just found out that one of your closest friends has been spreading rumours about you, saying that you are in danger of being dismissed from school for sleeping with a professor. You suspect it is an attempt to make themselves look better than you. As a result of the rumour, several of your friends have started avoiding you.
- You recently finished an assignment that you had been working on for a long time, and felt proud of the work you had accomplished. After receiving your mark back, however, you find that the professor gave you a poor grade which you don’t feel you deserve. When speaking with the professor about it, he is dismissive and does not listen to your arguments.
- Your younger sister tells you about an incident involving someone she knows. Despite her lack of interest in this person, he was making inappropriate comments and touching her against her wishes.
- Stuckless, N., & Goranson, R. (1992). The Vengeance Scale: Development of a measure of attitudes toward revenge. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 7(1), 25-42. [↩]
- Lerner, M. J., & Montada, L. (1998). An overview: Advances in belief in a just world theory and methods. In L. Montada, & M. J. Lerner (Eds.), Responses to victimizations and belief in a just world (pp. 1-7). New York, NY, US: Plenum Press. [↩]
- Whether or not the world actually is this way or not is a separate issue. [↩]
- Macaskill, A. (2008). Just-world beliefs and forgiveness in men and women. In W. Malcolm, N. DeCourville & K. Belicki (Eds.), Women’s reflections on the complexities of forgiveness. (pp. 39-59). New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group. [↩]
- Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85(5), 1030-1051. [↩]
- Hafer, C. L., & Olson, J. M. (1998). Individual differences in the belief in a just world and responses to personal misfortune. In L. Montada, & M. J. Lerner (Eds.), Responses to victimizations and belief in a just world. (pp. 65-86). New York, NY, US: Plenum Press. [↩]
- Maes, J. (1998). Immanent justice and ultimate justice: Two ways of believing in justice. In L. Montada, & M. J. Lerner (Eds.), Responses to victimizations and belief in a just world. (pp. 9-40). New York, NY, US: Plenum Press. [↩]