Wednesday, December 11, 2019

When transgressors intend to cause harm: The empowering effects of revenge and forgiveness on victim well‐being

When transgressors intend to cause harm: The empowering effects of revenge and forgiveness on victim well‐being. Peter Strelan  Jan‐Willem Van Prooijen  Mario Gollwitzer. British Journal of Social Psychology, December 11 2019.

Abstract: When people are transgressed against, they are usually motivated to restore personal power that was threatened by the transgression. We argue and test the new idea that while revenge and forgiveness responses are typically seen as opposites, both may be empowering, depending on the offender’s intent to harm. Across two studies, one experimental (N = 381) and one employing an autobiographical recall paradigm (N = 251), we tested a moderated mediation model. Notably, we found that revenge is empowering at high levels of intent and forgiveness is empowering regardless of intent. Importantly, we also demonstrate that empowerment provides an explanation for the process by which getting revenge and forgiving are each associated with improved affective outcomes for victims.



We found, as hypothesized, a significant revenge 9 intent interaction on empowerment in both studies. In Study 1, when offender intent was high, taking revenge was less disempowering than doing nothing (the control condition), and avengers experienced more positive and less negative affect in that case. In Study 2, we observed a similar effect: The more participants reported that perceived offender intent was high, the more revenge was empowering. The differing methodological approaches that we employed may account for the nuanced difference in the direction of effects between Study 1 and Study 2. Study 1 used hypothetical scenarios, which (1) are comparably less emotionally involving, and in which (2) people are probably more aware of the fact that, usually, in Western societies revenge tends not to be socially acceptable (Yoshimura & Boon, 2018). Study 2, however, used autobiographical stories, which were more involving and also less prone to social desirability issues. Here, participants might have allowed themselves to experience and/or report the empowering effects of taking revenge more strongly than in Study 1. In any event, regardless of how revenge affected empowerment in the two studies, our theoretical argument is sustained: When victims perceive that offenders intended to cause harm, getting revenge is the more sensible tactic – compared to doing nothing (Study 1) or not getting revenge (Study 2) – at least in terms of empowering victims.

Compatibility with and extension of existing theorizing about revenge

Previous experimental research suggests revenge can be satisfying when victims can see that their transgressor understands the reasons for revenge, or has learnt from it (e.g., Funk et al., 2014; Gollwitzer et al., 2011), but revenge is likely to be unsatisfying when it serves no clear function (e.g., Carlsmith & Darley 2008). Our findings fit with the idea that taking revenge can make avengers feel both good and bad (see Eadeh et al., 2017). Specifically, in Study 1, when intent was high, avengers felt more empowered than participants who did nothing, so that avengers were more likely to indicate positive affect. However, when empowerment was statistically controlled for, taking revenge was negatively related to positive affect. This suggests that the hedonic benefits of taking revenge can be explained by feelings of empowerment. These findings are novel and add another piece to the puzzle regarding the hedonic qualities of revenge. In Study 2, the empowering effect of revenge on affective outcomes under conditions of high intent was even more pronounced. In terms of direct effects, revenge was associated with higher levels of negative affect and clinical symptoms. However, to the extent that victims got revenge against deliberately hurtful transgressors, they felt empowered, so much so that the relations with negative affect and clinical symptoms flipped around: Getting revenge was now associated with less negative affect and fewer clinical symptoms. Interestingly, revenge was also associated with higher levels of positive affect, especially when offenders meant to hurt and avengers felt empowered. In short, we provide further evidence that if revenge is indeed to be ‘sweet’, it needs to be functional. As offender intent increases, revenge becomes an appropriate response (e.g., McCullough et al., 2013). One function of revenge under conditions of high intent, therefore, is that it serves to empower avengers, an experience which in turn helps make revenge ‘sweet’. Finally, we have extended previous research. Earlier studies on the functionality of revenge relied on an offender’s response for a victim to know if revenge was effective (e.g., Funk et al., 2014; Gollwitzer et al., 2011). However, in the present studies, the potential efficacy of revenge was under the avenger’s control (i.e., they only had to decide if the transgression was intentional or not).


In both studies, there was a main (direct) effect of forgiveness on empowerment, indicating that forgiving is empowering. Notably, this relation was not qualified by an interaction with intent, indicating that forgiveness is empowering regardless of the extent to which victims perceive that offenders intend to cause harm. Furthermore, in Study 1, there was evidence that forgiving helps victims feel less negative and more positive because it is, to some extent, empowering. The direct effects on well-being are in line with a substantial literature indicating the benefits of forgiving for victims (Cheadle & Toussaint, 2015; Griffin et al., 2015; Larkin et al, 2015; McCullough, 2008; Witvliet & Luna, 2018). The indirect effect through empowerment is new, providing initial evidence for the process by which forgiveness leads to more positive and less negative affective outcomes. In Study 2, forgiveness was positively associated with revenge and negative affect and clinical symptoms – yet was also positively associated with empowerment and positive affect. Although these relations seem incompatible, there are at least two interrelated plausible explanations. One is that these findings reflect the reality of post-transgression turmoil, wherein victims need to navigate conflicting response repertoires particularly in good-quality relationships (as was the case in this study). For example, longitudinal research shows that emotional responses oscillate in the aftermath of transgressions, so that a person can indicate vengeful and benevolent motivations at the same time (e.g., McCullough et al., 2003). In addition, it is possible that the positive forgiveness–revenge correlation reflects that participants had acted vengefully, which in turn enabled them to forgive, consistent with research indicating that getting justice helps victims forgive (for a review, see Strelan, 2018). The other explanation is methodological in nature. Wellestablished measures of forgiveness require participants to indicate their current thoughts or feelings or motivations towards a transgressor, so that the classic forgiveness versus revenge dichotomy emerges. That is, if a person is currently positively disposed towards a transgressor, they cannot at the same time indicate that they are negatively disposed towards them; therefore, the conflicting responses typically seen posttransgression are not captured. However, this was the first study in which victims’ perceptions of their forgiveness and revenge behaviours have been measured and participants were asked to recall the extent to which they had acted vengefully or in a forgiving manner. As a measure of recalling what one did, it allows a respondent to be internally inconsistent, that is, to recall acting both positively and negatively towards a transgressor. When the empowering effect of forgiveness was taken into account (Study 2), the significant positive relation between forgiveness and each of negative affect and clinical symptoms disappeared, indicating a suppressor effect for empowerment. This suggests that a sense of empowerment helps to render moot the positive relation between forgiveness and those negative outcomes. Further, there was an indirect negative effect of forgiveness on negative affect and clinical symptoms via empowerment. These relations indicate that the less forgiving a person is, the less empowered they feel, and the more negative their affective responses. In short, there is some evidence that if empowerment plays a role, it is to explain why lower levels of forgiveness may predict higher levels of negative affect and clinical symptoms.

Compatibility with and extension of existing theorizing about forgiveness

Our findings speak to two aspects of the forgiveness literature. One is concerned with the costs of forgiving, which effectively suggests that if offenders do not deserve forgiveness (e.g., Strelan et al., 2016), then forgivers should experience forgiveness as costly. In the present studies, offenders who intended harm would not deserve forgiveness, and therefore, forgiving should prove to be a costly affective exercise for victims. Notably, in Study 2, we found similar effects to Strelan et al. for the forgiveness 9 intent interaction on the downstream variables: Forgiving was related to higher negative affect and lower positive affect when intent was high – in other words, when offenders did not deserve forgiveness (see footnote 2). However, in both our studies intent to harm did not affect the extent to which forgivers felt empowered – in other words, even when offenders did not deserve forgiveness, forgiveness was still empowering. These particular findings provide further support for Strelan et al.’s theorizing that undeserved forgiveness is a costly affective response, but they also suggest there may be nuances in the way undeserved forgiving is experienced. To that end, our findings for empowerment are consistent with another literature concerning the benefits of forgiveness, which suggests that forgiving is empowering despite an offender’s bad behaviour and possibly even because of it (e.g., Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000).

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