Motivation and emotion/Book/2015/Revenge motivation

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Revenge motivation:
What motivates revenge and how does it affect us?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Seeking revenge is like tasting poison and waiting for the other to die.
Rosen (2007).

This chapter will discuss:

  • What is revenge?
  • How does revenge motivation affect us?
  • Theories of motivation and revenge.
  • Why do some people act in vengeful ways?

Introduction to revenge[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

What is revenge?[edit | edit source]

Revenge is a form of retaliation whereby one seeks out hostile confrontations with others, motivated by a desire to pay-back another they feel is responsible for a hurt or suffering (Crowe & Wilkowski, 2013, Uniacke, 2000). It is defined as personal and non-instrumental; as vindictive and malicious and is described as an obsessional idea and a compulsive enactment (Rosen, 2007, Uniacke, 2000).

Many individual and collective actions are motivated by revenge (Uniacke, 2000). This motivation may stem from an emotional pain or shock experienced by an action from another,[grammar?] this is due to feelings of revenge being a common human response to pain or hurt by others (van Denderen, de Keijser, Gerlsma, Huisman & Boelen, 2014). The instinct of revenge which is so powerful in the natural man, is nothing but the excitation of a reflex that has not been released (Freud, 1895).

Revenge may occur in many forms and on many levels and may be expressed readily through masochistic reactions or sadistic behaviour (Beattie, 2005). These reactions or sadistic behaviours can evolve into manifestations of revenge including verbal and physical assault and ranging from a sarcastic remark in passing, to killing (Akhtar, 2014).

Figure 1. Shakespeare's Hamlet depicting the avenging murder of his father

Acts of revenge may not necessarily be directed at the correct target, they may not even be directed at the individual who is thought to have caused the harm. Rank (1913) explained that revenge may be aimed at symbolic objects that represent or stand for the injuring party. The avenger may be weak or vulnerable and often direct revenge fantasies against the wrong people. Revenge fantasies in terror attacks, as per Akhtar (2003) [grammar?] show that victims are not always the correct target.

What motivates revenge?[edit | edit source]

Arising from the definition of revenge comes the question "why"? I'm sure when watching the news of an evening and seeing the crimes that people commit make you question "why"? It is commonly known that individual and collective actions are motivated by revenge (Uniacke, 2000). With reference to the latter, what motivates revenge?

What do you think motivates revenge?

1 Power?


2 Authority?


3 A desire for status?


Prevalence of revenge motivation

According to an Australian Institute of Criminology report, throughout 2008-2010 revenge homicides encompassed 5 per cent of the most frequently recorded homicides, with 26 victims and 25 incidents. Of these, 8 per cent were acquaintance homicides, 6 per cent stranger homicides and 2 per cent were domestically related.

The prevalence of revenge homicide rated seventh following domestic argument, other argument, no motive, alcohol-related argument, drugs and money.

Quick fact find about revenge[edit | edit source]

Definition of revenge[edit | edit source]

The English word revenge is derived from the old French word venire meaning to avenge: to avenge one by retaliating in kind or in degree, to avenge someone by inflicting injury in return of an insult, to avenge someone is an opportunity for gaining personal satisfaction.

Merriam-Webster (1998) p. 1009.

Acts of revenge[edit | edit source]

Acts of revenge are not always directed at the individual or organisation that is viewed as having caused harm. They are sometimes directed at the wrong target.

Akhtar & Parens (2014) p. 2.

Revenge against the self[edit | edit source]

Chronic self-effacement, self-deprivation, self-denigration, self-mutilation and self-destructiveness of some patients can contain an unconscious element of revenge.

Akhtar & Parens (2014) p. 2.

Forms of revenge[edit | edit source]

Direct aspects of revenge take many forms. These may include:

  • Active,
  • Passive,
  • Aggressive, and
  • Sexual.
Akhtar & Parens (2014) p. 3.

Introduction to motivation[edit | edit source]

Motivation is defined as a theoretical construct that focuses on the processes that drive and direct individuals to behave in certain ways in order to achieve individual goals (Weiner, 1992). Motivation is the driving force behind behaviour, it aims to answer questions such as "why is this behaviour occurring"? and "why does one person react this way while another acts another way"?

This book chapter aims to link motivation and revenge to answer the question of "why do some people act in vengeful ways and others don't"?

Types of motivation[edit | edit source]

Maslow's hierarchy of needs[edit | edit source]

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (1970) is one of the most influential and understood identifications of human motivation. As seen in Figure 2. the pyramid is sorted into five sections. Physiological needs such as breathing, food, water and sex make up the basis for the hierarchy. This is then followed by safety, love and belonging, esteem and self-actualisation.

Figure 2. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

As per Maslow A.H. (1943) when the most present goal is realised, the next need emerges, creating a motivational system of goals.

The perpetrator motives research design[edit | edit source]

The perpetrator motives research design (PMRD) by Gergen (1985) is designed to dissolve the motivations behind behaviours; this ultimately builds a foundation to reduce the behaviour in question.

The PMRD was designed as a research methodology to study trend data, case studies, indicators of violence, and communication strategies (Vecchi, Hasselt & Angleman 2013). Its fundamental use is to gather information from criminal offenders in order to dissect and understand the nature of the offences committed and the motivation behind them.

Theories of motivation[edit | edit source]

Summary of theory

Table 1. Summary of motivational theories

Theory Description
Expectancy theory An action is made due to the desirability of the outcome.
Cognitive evaluation theory The effects of external consequences on intrinsic motivation.
Drive theory Humans are born with certain drives that aim to satisfy their physiological needs.

Expectancy theory of motivation[edit | edit source]

The expectancy theory of motivation was proposed in 1964 by Vroom, who suggested that motivation can be understood by expected behaviours. Simply, an action is made due to the desirability of the outcome, the actions that yield the highest perceived benefits (Kanfer, 1990). Embodied within this theory are the following aspects:

  • Valence,
  • Expectancy, and
  • Instrumentality.

Table 2. Variables of the expectancy theory of motivation

Valence This refers to the perceived value or "attractiveness" of each second-level outcome, based on needs, goals and values (Kanfer, 1990).
Expectancy This explains an individual’s attitude that effort will result in attainment of the desired goals (Kanfer, 1990).
Instrumentality This is the perceived relationship between the level of performance and second-level outcomes (Kanfer, 1990). It also refers to the effort required to perform the task and the expected reward (Lee, 2007).

Cognitive evaluation theory[edit | edit source]

The cognitive evaluation theory is a construct within psychology designed to explain the effects of external consequences on intrinsic motivation (Kanfer, 2000).

Intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is satisfying and enjoyable, this kind of motivation results in high quality learning and creativity (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Intrinsic motivation is an important form of motivation within human behaviour, it is a critical element in cognitive, social and physical development encouraging the growth of knowledge and skills (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

After work every day, Sandy goes home to think about all of the sarcastic remarks she could make against her co-workers. Sandy does this as an act of revenge because she enjoys doing so, it makes her happy. Is Sandy intrinsically motivated?


Extrinsic motivation is defined as actions that are completed in order to attain an outcome, it is usually completed due to compliance with an external control (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Sandy goes home every afternoon from work and thinks about all of the ways she could avoid her co-workers the next day. Sandy does this because she fears going to work and being harassed by her co-workers. Is Sandy extrinsically motivated?


The cognitive evaluation theory encompasses ideologies of revenge fantasies and acts of revenge as external constructs, such as hurt or pain by another person, influences intrinsic motivation i.e. acting sarcastically towards that particular person, or acting in a vengeful way because of the pain they have caused.

Drive theory of motivation[edit | edit source]

The drive theory of motivation aims to identify and classify psychological motives and actions. Seward (1956) defines a drive as an excitatory state, humans are born with certain needs and a drive is proposed in order to satisfy those needs. This theory is used to explain biological or physiological needs which creates a problem as not all needs are driven by hunger, thirst or sexual desires.

The drive theory also encompasses an ideology of revenge fantasy. This is because the need for vengeance, expressed through pre-disposed personality traits such as narcissism and sadism act as a driving force behind the action. Klein (1933, 1940 in Akhtar, 2014) addressed the drive theory in relation to revenge through an externalisation of death instinct and the subsequent creation of bad objects. These objects are feared and justifiably revenged.

Revenge and motivation[edit | edit source]

Revenge motivation is referenced by Knoll (2010) whereby psychoanalysis and forensic psychiatry have yet to entirely discover the psychological nature of revenge, seen as a destructive cognition.

Akhtar and Parens (2014) suggest that throughout the history of civilisation, man's destructiveness towards man through narcissistic injury, rage and retaliation demonstrate that one's violence is given an appearance of reasonableness through rationalising and justification regardless of whether it involves aspects ranging from children to sadism and paranoia.

So, how does revenge affect us?

Revenge creates and maintains an enduring object-relational tie based envy, splitting, greed, sadism and spite. To succumb to revenge acts is to increase our regressive resort to primitive defences including denial, projective identification and splitting (Rosen, 2007). Justified revenge provides somewhat of a sadistic or narcissistic gratification. Akhtar (2014) deduces that the fantasy of having being injured or harmed by someone and then experiencing the relief from inflicting pain, harm or damage upon the perpetrator is a form of justified revenge.

Human aggression is an expression of revenge (Knoll, 2010). It eventuates from an assault on the grandiose self or the idealised self-object as Akhtar (2014) suggested (Rosen, 2007). Fantasised revenge is a familiar cognition or experience in everyday life as is self-control and delay which are also considered expressive forms of revenge. "Clinicians encounter intrusive and persistent thoughts of vengeance associated with feelings of rage as perpetrators" (Knoll, 2010). Revenge motivation focuses on a righteous, justified claim for retribution rendering its sadism ego-syntonic, superego nullifying and id co-opting. It dissolves and vaporises other considerations of ego anchored really and consequences, or of superego, morality and prohibition (Rosen, 2007). Socarides (1966) proposed that the projection on envy upon super-ego figures leads to the hatred of powerful and secretly idealised others. Revenge provides sadistic gratification, specifically through justified revenge, maintenance of the status quo of primitive object relations based on envy and a defence against feelings of loss, shame, powerlessness and mourning (Knoll, 2010 & Rosen, 2007).

Seales (1956) supports this defensive functioning of revenge particularly relating to vindictiveness. Vindictive people are somewhat unable to let go of the object attachment to their desire, seeking revenge on the object influences a change in thought process and sense of relief in the attitude of the avenger.

Figure 4. Statue of nemesis

Vindictive people are believed to live for revenge (Socarides, 1966). There are supposedly two types of revenge as per Akhtar (2014), good-enough revenge and vindictiveness. The differences between the two are outlined in the table below. A vindictive person is described as grudging, unforgiving, remorseless, ruthless, heartless, implacable and inflexible (Socarides, 1966).

Table 3. The spectrum of good-enough revenge and vindictiveness

Variables Good-Enough Revenge Vindictiveness
Object External Internal
Emotion Rage Hate
Frequency Once Chronic
Scope Limited Unlimited
Cognition Contextual Narrowed
Ethics Intact Compromised
Narcissism Regained Regained
Pleasure Yes Yes
Masochism No Yes
Sublimation Maybe No
Consequence Constructive Destructive
Time Heals Makes no change

Not only is revenge directed at others but also at the self. Akhtar (2014) proposes that "chronic self-effacement, self-deprivation, self-denigration, self-mutilation and self-destructiveness" can be a precursor for unconscious elements of revenge fantasising or revenge motivation.

As a quote from Sigmond Freud, a leading characteristic of these cases [revenge of the self] is a cruel, self-depreciation of the ego combined with relentless self-criticism and bitter self reproaches. Analyses have shown that this disparagement and these reproaches apply at bottom to the object and represent the ego's revenge upon it.

Freud (1921) p. 109.

Personality and revenge[edit | edit source]

Case study

Chris is often preoccupied with fantasies of success and power, he believes that he is "special" and that he should be associating with people of higher status and wealth compared to who he is currently associating with. Chris is envious of others and believes that others are envious of him and his brilliance. Other's feel that Chris is arrogant, self-entitled and attention seeking. Chris has a partner who feels like their relationship is largely superficial and that Chris is more concerned with himself and his need for admiration then he is for his partner's needs. Chris appears to have little enjoyment from life and his partner is always worried that he is too controlling and possessive yet his charming nature and engaging personality always make his partner feel at ease.

Freud (1914) stated that narcissism is the attitude of a person who treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual objects ordinarily treated.

The personality characteristics of a narcissist involve experiencing an unusual degree of self-reference and grandiosity in their interactions with other people. There is a need to be loved and admired, an inflated sense of self-concept and a inordinate need for tribute from others (Freud, 1925). Narcissists may experience a shallow emotional life, little empathy, little enjoyment from life, grandiose fantasies as well as feelings of restless and boredom when no new sources feed their need for appraisal (Wink & Donahue, 1997). They are often viewed as controlling and possessive and are exploitive and parasitic in relationships yet they are charming and engaging on the surface despite having cold and ruthless feelings towards others (Freud, 1925). It is thought that the excessive preoccupation with personal power and prestige are a defence against paranoid traits. They are often unaware of their destructive and damaging nature. Narcissists are said to experience impaired empathy, impaired intimacy, impaired identity, and impaired self-direction (Kernberg, 1985).

Music film clapperboard.svg

Click here to watch a short video explaining narcissistic personality disorder.

Sadism is defined as deriving pleasure directly from suffering or inflicting pain on a victim, or by seeing others undergo pain or discomfort (Baumeister & Campbell, 1999).

The personality characteristics of a sadist involve experiencing pleasure from the expense of others. The criteria for sadistic personality disorder include having maladaptive patterns of motivated behaviour and enduring and pervasive patterns of behaviour. The onset of sadistic personality disorder can be traced to adolescence and involve an inflexible behaviour pattern and physical cruelty or violence to show dominance in relationships. A sadist humiliates or demeans others, takes pleasure in the pain of others or animals, has lied to inflict pain on others, controls other people through fear and restricts the autonomy of their relationships. A sadist is said to be fascinated by violence and weapons, injury and torture (Hare, Cooke, Hart, 1999).

Rosen (2007) links the justified claim for retribution in those who openly seek revenge against others, with narcissism and sadism. French (2001) also links justified revenge with sadistic gratification. This link is also supported by Akhtar (2014) and Socarides (1966) through vindictiveness and lower level revenge fantasies.

What do you think?

Do you think Chris possesses personality characteristics of a narcissist or of a sadist?


Conclusion[edit | edit source]

How can a society reduce the impact of vengefulness on its members, is it possible?

Schoenfeld (1966) implied that there is a need for laws that stretch beyond the enforcement of legislation and rules within a society and that there is a need for the law to contain and metabolise individual and collective impulses for revenge. If individuals are not abiding and resorting to the law as the basis for justice and retribution, they will be drawn to engage in dangerous patterns of personal revenge where the laws can no longer sufficiently provide justification. This is further supported by French (2001), "in the absence of social structures of justice, individual revenge becomes a moral imperative".

How can one aim to reduce revenge fantasies and vengeful thoughts, is that possible?

It has been determined by Akhtar (2014) that people with differing levels of character organisation, or personality, differ in the types of revenge fantasies they possess. This signifies that the approaches to learning ways to avoid vengeful thinking or to reduce acts of revenge are different depending on personality type and character organisation. Those with a higher level of character organisation are recognised experiencing revenge fantasies circumscribing oedipal issues (Akhtar, 2014). Those with an intermediate to low level of character organisation retain more overt, cold-blooded and sadistic fantasies of revenge (Akhtar, 2014), for example: narcissism.

In a clinical setting, how can one address revenge fantasies and vindictiveness? According to Akhtar (2014) and based of multiple research and analyses (Balint, 1968; Killingmo, 1989; Freud, 1923; Lowenstein, 1951; Poland, 1975 in Akhtar, 2014) the following steps are a desired option to address and treat revenge fantasies in a clinical setting.

  1. The patient should be able to express grievances and repeat them, and avoid pointing out discrepancies and contradictions in their re-enactment.
  2. The analyst should be empathetic, gentle but still exploratory, and make use of affirmative interventions (Killingmo, 1989).
  3. Revenge fantasies and hostility may be close to consciousness, move on from affirmative interventions and begin unmasking and interpreting interventions. Explore the scope of revenge fantasies while ensuring the patient has your continued attention.
  4. If revenge fantasies have transformed towards the self and the clinical picture is masochistic, the analysts must help he patient see this.
  5. Departing from the analytic neutrality may be experienced, this is permissible if there is a risk of harm to the patient, analyst or another person. The harm may not be physical.
  6. Assess the patients ego through the degree and form of revenge fantasies present, address the people involved and ask the patient whether it is essential to take revenge or not.

What have we learned?

  • What is revenge?
  • How does revenge motivation affect us?
  • Theories of motivation
  • Why do some people act in vengeful ways?
  • What motivates revenge
  • Treatments of revenge fantasies

Within this chapter many [which?] aspects of revenge motivation have been addressed. It should be noted that literature on revenge motivation and revenge fantasies is limited and that the aim of this chapter is to educate readers in how to apply psychological knowledge about revenge motivation to their lives.

It can be concluded that personality types impact upon the way revenge affects us, those prone to narcissistic and sadistic personality types are likely to experience aspects of revenge motivation. Revenge provides those exposed to its nature with sadistic gratification, specifically through justified revenge, maintenance of the status quo of primitive object relations based on envy and a defence against feelings of loss, shame, powerlessness and mourning.

Test yourself[edit | edit source]

What have you learned so far?

1 What kind of form does revenge take?

Many forms

2 Vindictive people are best described as?

All of the above

3 What kind of pain is revenge accompanied by according to Freud?


4 As per the text, what kind of actions can be involved in revenge fantasises?

Refusal to eat
Running away
All of the above

5 Revenge can be aimed at?

The self
Any person
Any object

See also[edit | edit source]

Filicide motivation

Defence mechanism motivation

Extreme emotions as motivation

Anger and violent behaviour

Antisocial personality disorder and emotion

Emotional manipulation and control within relationships

Psychopathy and emotion




References[edit | edit source]

Akhtar, S. (2009). Comprehensive dictionary of psychoanalysis. London: Karmac.

Akhtar, S., & Parens, H. (2014) Revenge.

Akhtar, S. (2014)Sources of suffering.

Australian Institute of Criminology,. (2015). Homicide in Australia: 2008–09 to 2009–10 National Homicide Monitoring Program annual report. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.

Balint, M. (1979). The basic fault. New York: Brunner/Mazel.

Baumeister, R., & Campbell, W. (1999). Thinking About the Self-Esteem Movement. Psyccritiques, 44(6).

Cooke, D., Michie, C., Hart, S., & Hare, R. (1999). Evaluating the Screening Version of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist--Revised (PCL:SV): An item response theory analysis. Psychological Assessment, 11(1), 3-13.

Crowe, S., & Wilkowski, B. (2013). Looking for trouble: Revenge-planning and preattentive vigilance for angry facial expressions. Emotion, 13(4), 774-781.

French, P. (2001). The virtues of vengeance. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas.

Freud, S., Strachey, J., & Freud, A. (1962). The Standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press.

Gergen, K. (1985). The social constructionist movement in modern psychology. American Psychologist, 40(3), 266-275.

Kanfer, R. (1990). Motivation and individual differences in learning: An integration of developmental, differential and cognitive perspectives. Learning And Individual Differences, 2(2), 221-239.

Kernberg, O. (1985). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. New York: J. Aronson.

Lee, S. (2007). Vroom's expectancy theory and the public library customer motivation model. Library Review, 56(9), 788-796.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.

McKee, I., & Feather, N. (2008). Revenge, Retribution, and Values: Social Attitudes and Punitive Sentencing. Soc Just Res, 21(2), 138-163.,. (2015). revenge

Rosen, I. (2007). Revenge the Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name: a Psychoanalytic Perspective. Journal Of The American Psychoanalytic Association, 55(2), 595-619.

Ryan, R., & Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54-67.

Seward, J. (1956). Drive, incentive, and reinforcement. Psychological Review, 63(3), 195-203.

Socarides, C. (1966). On Vengeance: The Desire to "Get Even". Journal Of The American Psychoanalytic Association, 14(2), 356-375.

van Denderen, M., de Keijser, J., Gerlsma, C., Huisman, M., & Boelen, P. (2014). Revenge and psychological adjustment after homicidal loss. Aggr. Behav., 40(6), 504-511.

Vecchi, G., Van Hasselt, V., & Angleman, A. (2013). The Perpetrator-Motive Research Design: A strategy for understanding motivations, values, and tactics of criminal offenders. Aggression And Violent Behavior, 18(1), 11-18.

Vroom, W. (1964). Jan Gossaert van Mabuse als ontwerper van koorbanken in de Dom van Utrecht. Oud Holland - Quarterly For Dutch Art History, 79(1), 172-174.

Weiner, B. (1992). Human motivation. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage.

Wink, P., & Donahue, K. (1997). The Relation between Two Types of Narcissism and Boredom. Journal Of Research In Personality, 31(1), 136-140.

External links[edit | edit source]

A theory of human motivation (Journal)

Revenge motivation (Journal)

Motivation and emotion (Journal)

Psychological self-help (Clayton E. Tucker-Ladd)

Motivation and emotion (psychwww links)

Homicide in Australia

The Perpetrator Motives Research Design