Motives – Revenge

So many books and movies use it! Have you ever noticed? In some movies, it’s the whole point, it’s the foundation of the whole story. Someone destroyed your life, messed with your mind or killed your children, so you do whatever it takes to get them back. There are characters and superheroes whose whole life is built around it, and they’re usually not the bad guys.

Why is it universally accepted as a motivation that makes sense? If you think about it, revenge almost always costs more than the original problem. And it does not bring back the dead, it does not undo the damage. Many of these characters have nothing to lose now, or are driven almost mad, and they seem to feel that revenge will make things okay again, at least in their own mind. After they successfully get the person back, they can stop whatever crazed thing they’re doing. It’s frequently phrased as ‘he owes me’ or ‘I have to get my own back’ as if the person took something from you, and you can go and get it. But usually what was taken is destroyed, never to return.

It’s very strange, very human. And… I may be wrong about this, and I’m not saying it’s universal… very male. It does seem to usually be males in fiction that go way way way out of their normal lives to ‘get someone back’. I know that in real life women have this urge too, but I’m not sure they’d go to such lengths. It’s as if we expect guys to be unable to give up, no matter what they sacrifice, in the name of revenge.

And culturally, at least in fiction, we seem to be okay with that. Our sympathy is with the character who has been hard done by, even if it results in him wrecking several cars, walking into burning buildings, shooting up the landscape, or whatever it takes to damage those who damaged him. The more hurt he deals himself in the process, the better. At the end, the lesson seems to be, that was not right what you did, boy, and you have become what you hate (in some fictions, that is… many leave out that part). But, at least you got him back. If the character failed to get revenge, but pulled back and didn’t do the damage, and instead found inner peace from acceptance, would it be a happy ending?

I just wonder where this is, in evolutionary terms. Where does revenge fit in? It’s obviously a very strong and deeply embedded concept, like pair bonding or group-goodwill activities. Is it related to the urge that makes us kill the man-eater? This is strong enough that even today, when dogs are not at all a threat to the race, in fact a close companion and ally, we still shoot the dog that dares to bite a human. Is revenge a related ‘requirement’ to our limbic system? Perhaps to aid the society more than the individual or family: if you do this to one of us, we will hunt you down and make sure everyone knows we are not to be messed with.

I don’t know, but it’s an interesting concept. What do you think?

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Justin Bott
    Aug 27, 2008 @ 20:18:51

    Great little idea. I like stuff like this. My blog talks about human nature in the form of their need to control. I think that our need for revenge comes from this need to control. I’ve thought for years that people felt the need to control others and it really doesn’t have to be like that. I think it all comes down to ego and as long as that’s in the equation, then our current problems will always exist.

  2. asherose
    Aug 27, 2008 @ 21:29:48

    Interesting thoughts, thank you!

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