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How Revenge Restores Self-Esteem in High-Power Individuals? - Vertical Individualism

I woke up feeling revengeful.
I was quite curious about where these feelings stem from.
Maybe self-esteem, I was thinking.
So I googled around and stumbled upon an interesting paper.

Vertical individualism and injustice: The self-restorative function of revenge

Vertical Individualism and Reactions to Injustice

This is the important gist of the paper on page 2:

According to the cross-cultural psychology literature, vertical individualism represents the blending of individualist values and achievement orientation and an emphasis on outperforming others (Singelis, Triandis, Bhawuk, & Gelfand, 1995; Triandis, 1996, 2001).

In particular, those who are high on vertical individualism are motivated by self-enhancement values, such as achievement and power (also see Cukar, de Guzman, & Carlo, 2004). These individuals also emphasize hierarchy and accept the existence of inequalities among people. They give personal goals priority over group goals, and their behaviors are determined by personal preferences, rights, convictions, and goals.

Importantly, for our research, the attainment of self-esteem from competition and outperforming others is especially relevant for those who are high versus low on vertical individualism (Cukar et al., 2004; Triandis, 2001).

The motivation to outperform others is so central to individuals who are strongly vertically individualistic that they are likely to violate moral principles (i.e., honesty, integrity) to win (Triandis et al., 2001).

It talks about a key term, vertical individualism.

Individuals high on vertical individualism are

  • motivated by self-enhancement values like achievement and power
  • emphasise hierarchy
  • accept the existence of inequalities among people
  • give personal goals priority over group goals

As such, they build their self-esteem from competing with and outperforming others.

When these people encounter what they deem as an injustice (basically get slighted), hitting back helps them feel a sense of superiority and builds up their self-esteem.

Then, the paper discusses the results of controlled, social experiments that they did to measure the slights of these people.
Pretty interesting experiments in my opinion.
It will take quite a long to dissect so you can read the details in the paper.

Why Feelings of Revenge Stem from Building Your Self-Esteem Upon External Metrics Especially Power?

Ties back to anti-fragile ego and growth mindset.

If you build your self-esteem upon external factors, especially status symbols, power, and resources, your self-esteem is fragile because it is out of your control.
As such, it is easy to feel attacked by insults and threats.
Or anything that threatens your self-image of having power and status.

This relates to the feelings of revenge on a small scale or large scale.
The feeling of wanting to hit back.
Hitting back will boost the individual’s feelings of superiority, and hence restores the individual’s self-esteem.

Personal Reflection

What I realise is that upon encountering assholes, I have some weird desire of wanting to feel superior to these assholes.
I feel the need to be above the assholes.
And taking revenge is an effective means of feeling superior to them.

However, it may not be the best use of emotional attention and time.
Although sometimes bringing down assholes may be good.

It's also fragile.
Because even with all the power dynamic strategies, one cannot bet on always "winning" the asshole.

As such, it's better to consider the situation in a more detached and objective manner.

However, sometimes temporarily putting on the "desire to feel superior" mask may be a good idea.
Because it may enable you to come out with good ideas against whoever you need to bring down.

I think playing with one's self-image can help one become more creative.

Internal Locus of Control Helps to Prevent Feelings of Revenge

Having an internal locus of control by building your self-esteem upon

  • Doing your best towards the outcomes for yourself & the team in the long run
  • Learning from your mistakes; striving towards the "truth" (arguably there's no objective truth)
  • Striving towards maintaining good interpersonal dynamics with people; collaborative and win-win relationships

As such, when one person violates your boundaries, you go towards these 3 points and go with a “deal with the situation effectively” mindset rather than focusing on maintaining power.


Edit: Header fonts are weird. Not sure why.

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano

Great psychological analysis / insight, Matthew!

On this website, we call those individuals "high in power" or "high power".
The pejorative term we sometimes used was "power hungry".

BUT... We haven't yet formally defined it.

This "vertical individualism" doesn't seem to be a widely accepted definition, so we might stick with "high in power", which is also a larger definition.

These individuals are more likely to get annoyed and offended when you don't power protect, when you're overly dominant / bossy, when you over-task them, or when you try to lead them without first having social capital, buy-in, and/or addressing their WIIFM.

High power people are important for life success and it's important to know how to deal with them, because these people are (far) more likely than the average to acquire power.

Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

The term "vertical individualism" does seem overly academic when I saw the term in the paper.

I think a lot of presidents seem to be high in power like Obama, Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron.
3 of them have shown the behaviour of wanting to hit back.
I'm trying to think of a person who aspired to be president because of wanting to serve the nation rather than for personal power.

It's beneficial for people to want power when they are competent and can provide good leadership to a team.
Hence, I think a pejorative term like "power-hungry" would carry too much bias in the negative direction as a generic term.
Though I think it's an apt term for abusive people.

The ideal would be for every "high in power" individual to have a growth mindset and anti-fragile ego.
But that's the ideal and there are shades of grey to how "high in power" people are.

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano

True, I agree.

I do see a time and place for revenge though.
It's not an ideal for me to "rid yourself of all feelings of revenge". As long as they don't make you feel bad, or that they don't crowd out the beauty and happiness in the world, then I personally see nothing inherently bad in the drive of getting geven.

Matthew Whitewood has reacted to this post.
Matthew Whitewood
Have you read the forum guidelines for effective communication already?

I was reading at another place that revenge evolved as a pro-social means to discourage asshole behaviour.
Does Revenge Serve an Evolutionary Purpose?

So I think feelings of revenge in a detached manner can serve as an indicator of who you need to be careful of and also get even with.

I think handling aggression or microaggression requires "revenge" in some sense.
Revenge on a small scale, not like the Blockbuster Hollywood movies.
You are disincentivising people to behave in that manner whether through asserting boundaries or aggressing back.

I also think long-term revenge like bringing down a bad boss or even just speaking out against bad behaviour could be a good idea.
Like Comey becoming colder towards Donald Trump, followed by speaking up.

The article also mentions an important point:

Revenge doesn't have to be effective, and that's really important.

Comey stood up to Trump which is what matters albeit one can argue how effective that was.

On a personal level, I also don't think taking pleasure in revenge is a bad thing in itself.
We could even go further and say it's a sign of empowerment because one is acknowledging one's inherent biological drives.

As Lucio mentions, I think revenge is only bad if it starts clouding your judgement.
Or one causes lots of unnecessary, collateral damage.

I think revengeful feelings are challenging to navigate.
If one doesn't have sufficient mental strength yet, one should probably take some distance although that in itself takes mental strength.
I think taking on a strong, negative emotion full-on with good mental control is more challenging than taking some distance.

Lucio Buffalmano has reacted to this post.
Lucio Buffalmano
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