Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Ability and Willingness of Victim to Retaliate

Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1666-1



Action taken in return for an injury or offense.


The concept of retaliation has historically been defined from both a behavioral and functional aspect. At its core, retaliation is based upon the premise of inciting organisms to increase benefit while reducing cost to oneself (McCullough et al. 2013). If a target organism can emit the potential ideal for retaliation toward an aggressor organism (typically in the form of retaliation itself), the target organism may increase its chances of lifetime productivity and may continue to evolve due to this willingness to retaliate. In other words, by making the potential costs of harm too high for an aggressor (imminent retaliation), the target organism is more likely to survive by avoiding harm against oneself.

Definitions that have previously influenced academics in the conceptualization of retaliation have typically been defined from a functional prospective. The Oxford English Dictionary defines revenge as both an act and a desire. To be more specific, Govier (2002) wrote “When we seek revenge, we seek satisfaction by attempting to harm the other [persons] as a retaliatory measure” (p. 2). Additionally, Uniacke (2000) also noted that “revenge is personal and non-instrumental: with revenge we seek to make people suffer because they have made us suffer, not because their actions or values require us to bring them down” (p. 62). Finally, scholars within the social sciences have further defined retaliation as “the intention to see the transgressor suffer” (Schumann and Ross 2010, p. 1193) along with a plethora of definitions focused upon retaliation being offered as a response to a violation and/or infliction of harm upon a person or one’s property (Govier 2002). However, for this entry, the use of McCullough et al. (2013) definition will be used. They purport retaliation to be a “deterrence system designed to change other’s incentive regarding the self.” In other words, in order to survive, Homo sapiens have developed cognitive adaptations specifically designed to utilize the benefits of retaliatory behavior.

Evolutionary Benefit of Retaliation

Many scholars believe retaliation evolved for three adaptive purposes. First, the possibility of retaliations’ ability to directly deter would-be aggressors. Secondly, if an aggressor chooses to harm another individual, retaliation may be a source of penalization for the transgressor’s wrongdoing. Lastly, retaliation encourages societal cooperation by discouraging aggressors from taking advantage of other individuals within their societal unit.

Benefit of Direct Deterrence

As previously noted, the first benefit of retaliatory action developed within many species is the ability for an organism to alter an aggressor’s behavior and ultimately prevent initial and/or future incidents of harm. In other words, if the costs of harming another organism become too high (greater than the benefits), then an aggressor may reconsider his/her actions and desist his/her aggressive behavior (Govier 2002).

Specifically, some scholars purport the evolvement and adaptation of retaliatory behavior as a direct means to provide additional costs for individuals who may seek to engage in harmful behavior, therefore, directly deterring a would-be transgressor from targeting persons who are willing to provide retaliatory impositions. In other words, a victim who is willing to retaliate (i.e., economically, socially, legally) against his/her aggressor is less likely to experience initial or future harm due to the high cost victimization would require from the aggressor. Therefore, the adaptive retaliate systems provide the benefit of increasing lifetime productiveness for would-be victims (Govier 2002). Through direct deterrence, academics believe that when an aggressor has made the decision to inflict harm, an individual who has a history of retaliation or is believed to be willing to retaliate is less likely to be chosen as a potential victim (Shumann and Ross 2010). In other words, a potential victim’s willingness to retaliate may change an aggressor’s incentive to inflict harm.

Empirical evidence in concert with the concept of direct deterrence lies within economic games (i.e., sequential and iterated prisoner’s games) (Axelrod 1984). For example, in sequential games, only a single round of interaction is played with options of cooperation or defection being allowed. However, the second player in the round makes his/her move only after viewing the first player’s initial selection. Research indicates that the second player is more likely to make a defective choice if the initial player begins by choosing the same. Alternatively, if the first player makes the decision to cooperate as his/her first choice, the second player is also more likely to choose the choice of cooperation (Hayashi et al. 1999). In addition, iterated prisoner’s games involving multiple rounds of play either with the same partner or with different partners also found that inmates almost always counter defection with defection (Bixenstine and Wilson 1963).

Additional experiments within social psychology have also discovered the ability for retaliatory action to directly deter a potential aggressor. In a study conducted with undergraduate males, Diamond (1977) found that participants who believed they could harm their instigator without retaliation were more likely to provide stronger punishments (shocks) to the individual whom they believed had wronged them. However, participants who believed their actions could be avenged after inflicting harm upon the confederate were not as quick to retaliate.

Further evidence in support of the potential for direct deterrence indicates that retaliatory behavior may also be incited by others known to the victim. For instance, a domestic violence study conducted in Madrid, Spain, concluded that women with more male relatives (especially located within close proximity) were less likely to be victims of domestic violence (Figueredo 1995). These findings are believed to result from a protective and retaliatory effect against harm. In other words, even if a victim is not willing to provide retaliatory behavior by his/her own hands, knowing individuals who may be willing to retaliate against an aggressor on behalf of a potential victim still increases the costs of exploitation/harm beyond any potential benefit allotted to the transgressor.

Benefit of Penalization for Wrongdoing

Secondly, retaliation as a source of penalization for wrongdoing has also been found to be psychologically beneficial for Homo sapiens victims. For instance, Adams (1965) found that participants reported feelings of distress when they felt treated unfairly or wronged by another individual. Therefore, the act of retaliation may result in a reduction in an individual’s distress level if the individual believes equality to the situation can be restored. In addition to retaliation among Homo sapiens, retaliatory action has also been found to be a form of punishment among nonhuman organisms as well (Clutton-Brock and Parker 1995). In support of this ideal, Clutton-Brock and Parker (2005) believed that victim retaliation would produce productiveness gains for the avenging organism by reducing the likelihood that the aggressor would repeat the harmful actions to the organism in the future, thus, increasing a victim’s odds for survival.

Benefit of Deterring Third-Party Aggressors

In addition to the potential benefits of direct deterrence and correcting wrongful action, retaliatory behavior may also be beneficial in the deterrence of third-party aggressors. Scholars believe the expression of aggression by an individual which signals an avenger’s potential for retaliation could potentially deter potential third-party aggressors. Historically, Homo sapiens have lived in small bonded units without the protection of larger governing bodies; thus, a reputation for a willingness to retaliate against interpersonal harms may have been a vital component to the protection of the unit (Govier 2002). Moreover, violence in the name of honor and the use of violent retaliation has historically been well documented by researches (McCullough 2008; McCullough et al. 2013). Therefore, the reputation of retaliatory action appears to have been evolutionarily vital to the survival of the primitive family unit.

In concert with the premise of retaliation as an adaptive feature for the promotion of reputational concerns, cognitive studies have found the mechanisms associated with retaliation to be responsive in the presence of third parties. For instance, laboratory studies have found that victims retaliate more vehemently when third parties are present, communicate with the victim that he/she is aware of the injustice, and tell the victim he/she looks powerless as a result of the aggressor’s actions (Kim et al. 1998).


Alternative to these three potential benefits associated with retaliation is the potential costs (for both aggressor and avenger) associated with avenging behavior. While retaliation may result from the intention to encourage cooperation, instances of counter-revenge and feuding have also been noted (Kim and Smith 1993). For instance, while an avenger may view retaliation as an equalization of intent, the initial transgressor may consider the action excessive and, thus, feel the need to retaliate against the avenger (Govier 2002). This form of revenge and counter-revenge may result in a perpetuating cycle of aggressive and/or violent behavior. Since retaliatory action may result in additional costs to an organism, individuals who feel they have been wronged may seriously weigh both the potential costs and benefits before asserting retaliatory action. Due to the potential for further harm by an aggressor who feels the need for counter-revenge, the initial avenger may choose to reject personal retaliation and pursue additional legal channels to attain justice.



  1. Adams, S. J. (1965). Inequity in social exchange. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 2, pp. 267–299). New York: Academic.Google Scholar
  2. Axelrod, R. (1984). The evolution of cooperation. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  3. Bixenstine, V. E., & Wilson, K. V. (1963). Effects of level of cooperative choice by the other player on choices in a prisoner’s dilemma game. Part II. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 139–147.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Clutton-Brock, T. H., & Parker, G. A. (1995). Punishment and animal societies. Nature, 373, 209–216.Google Scholar
  5. Diamond, S. R. (1977). The effect of fear on the aggressive responses of anger aroused and revenge motivated subjects. Journal of Psychology, 95, 185–188.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Figueredo, A. J. (1995). Preliminary report: Family deterrence of domestic violence in Spain. Tucson: Department of Psychology, University of Arizona.Google Scholar
  7. Govier, T. (2002). Forgiveness and revenge. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  8. Hayashi, N., Ostrom, E., Walker, J., & Yamagishi, T. (1999). Reciprocity, trust, and the sense of control: Across-societal study. Rationality and Society, 11, 27–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Kim, S. H., & Smith, R. H., (1993). Revenge and conflict escalation. Negotiation Journal, 9, 37–43.Google Scholar
  10. Kim, S. H., Smith, R. H., & Brigham, N. L. (1998). Effects of power imbalance and the presence of third parties on reactions to harm: Upward and downward revenge. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 353–361.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. McCullough, M. E., Kurzban, R., & Tabak, B. A. (2008). Evolved mechanisms for revenge and forgiveness. In P. R. Shaver and M. Milulincer (Eds.), Understanding and reducing aggression, violence, and their consequences (221–238). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  12. McCullough, M. E., Kurzban, R., & Tabak, B. A. (2013). Cognitive systems for revenge and forgiveness. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36, 1–58. doi:10.1017/S0140525X11002160.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Schumann, K., & Ross, M. (2010). The benefits, costs, and paradox of revenge. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(12), 1193–1205. doi:10.1111/j.17519004.2010.00322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Uniacke, S. (2000). Why is revenge wrong? The Journal of Value Inquiry, 34, 61–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Florida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kevin Beaver
    • 1
  1. 1.Florida State UniversityTallahasseeUSA