Street Sign Forgiveness versus Revenge

(© Thomas Reimer -

RICHMOND, Va. — “Revenge is a dish best served cold” is a phrase embedded in the English language, but it would seem that most people prefer to strike right away without any plotting, a new study reveals.

Despite the Hollywood depiction of people savoring sweet revenge after months or years of plotting, a team from Virginia Commonwealth University says people would rather choose to retaliate straight away. Across six experiments, 58 percent of participants preferred to take immediate revenge, even if it meant dealing a lesser blow to an enemy.

Teaching them a lesson

Most of the 1,500 volunteers also chose to take quick revenge over receiving money. Researchers theorize the reason could be most that people believe they need to take revenge immediately to teach others a lesson.

“Our findings suggest that people prefer a ‘hot-and-ready’ form of revenge, instead of a cold, calculated and delayed approach to vengeance,” says research leader Dr. David Chester, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, in a university release.

However, the experiments also showed people more often choose to wait if they were angrily dwelling on past wrongs in their lives. When study authors told the participants to think about a past incident, they began to prefer a delayed-but-greater revenge over an immediate-but-lesser revenge.

“We were able to shift participant preferences toward the delayed-but-greater choices using various experimental provocations,” says Dr. Samuel West, a postdoctoral fellow with the Injury and Violence Prevention Program at VCU Health.

“Participants also exhibited this preference when we asked them to think about someone from their actual life that had hurt them to serve as a hypothetical target. Even though our participants knew that their choices wouldn’t actually result in harm to their chosen target, strong differences in these preferences were reliably observed.”

Quick payback or meticulous plotting?

In one experiment, the team asked participants to play a video game against what they thought was a real opponent. The players could choose to subject their opponent to a lesser noise blast through their headphones or wait to inflict a louder noise blast the next day at a follow-up session.

In another test, the volunteers had to interact with two other people in a virtual chat room. However, they were then intentionally excluded from 80 percent of the conversation. The participant then had the opportunity to choose how long one of the offending chat participants would have to submerge their hand in painfully cold water.

“Participants in our studies who displayed a preference for delayed-but-greater revenge were more willing to wait for their desired revenge than they were monetary rewards,” Dr. West adds.

“In other words, revenge held its value for a longer period of time than did money to these participants. Across all of our studies we found that these preferences were highly divisive, such that 42% of participants were more willing to wait to enact more severe vengeance. Making this more complex is the fact that we also found that such individuals also had greater antagonistic traits like sadism (i.e., deriving enjoyment out of the suffering of others) and angry rumination.”

Revenge is just like other brain decisions?

The team says their findings make sense as most people consider wrongs done to them require a reasonable, proportionate, and immediate retaliatory response to teach provocateurs not to do so again.

“Yet when provocations become so severe that we ruminate about them over and over again, or when people provoke the ‘wrong person’ (i.e., a person with antagonistic personality traits), revenge may just become a dish best served cold,” explains Chester, the director of VCU’s Social Psychology and Neuroscience Lab.

The team notes their research could shed new light on theories of aggression and broader theories of antisocial behavior.

“Human life often entails one provocation after the other. At a certain point, people decide that some antagonisms have crossed the line and are deserving of revenge,” researchers write in their release. “Yet how do people decide whether to seek some revenge now or bide their time and inflict more revenge later?”

“Across six studies, we found that people treated such intertemporal decisions about revenge like they do for other rewards — they preferred receiving some now to receiving more later. In line with major theories of aggression, these preferences were readily shifted by experimental provocation and those with greater antagonistic traits were more willing to wait to deliver a more severe blow,” the team continues.

“Yet our results did not paint those who bided their time for greater revenge as impulsive, uninhibited individuals. Instead, they exhibited the recruitment of greater self-regulation.”

The findings appear in the journal Motivation Science.

South West News Service writer William Janes contributed to this report.

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