As leaders become more authoritarian and their efforts to correct problems are ineffective, organizational stress increases further and the organization is likely to become more punitive in an effort to control workers and clients. Organizational practices that are perceived as unjust evoke a desire for vengeance. As in the case of the chronically stressed individual, shame, guilt, anger and a desire for justice can combine with unfortunate consequences. When this is happening the organization may become both socially irresponsible and ethically compromised. We explore what happens when good people do bad things, including when otherwise decent people stand around and watch unjust behavior and do nothing.
The Problem of Revenge
Revenge can be defined as “the infliction of harm in righteous response to perceived harm or injustice” (p.803)(Stuckless and Goranson 1994) or as “the attempt, at some cost or risk to oneself, to impose suffering upon those who have made one suffer, because they have made one suffer” (p.862)(Elster 1990). Revenge can be differentiated from normal defensive aggression in two ways: it occurs after the damage has been done, and hence is not a defense against threat and it is of much greater intensity, and is often cruel, lustful and insatiable (Fromm 1973). The quest for revenge can be seen as: 1) a motivation for aggression; 2) as a source of psychological distress; 3) as a key factor in the philosophical discussion of punishment and justice (Stuckless and Goranson 1994).
The search for vengeance poses enormous problems for humanity. An injured individual is rarely in the position of applying a balanced solution to a wrong that has been perpetrated against him or her. The problem of vengeance is a social problem that must be resolved in the complex interaction between the victim, the perpetrator and the social group. Acts of “wild vengeance,” therefore, can be seen not only as the failure of the violent individual, but also the failure of the social group. Revenge is justice gone awry and takes over when society’s institutions fail. If, as a society, we are to eliminate violent perpetration, then we must socially evolve systems of justice that effectively contain and manage the human desire for revenge. Let’s look at the way concepts of justice and revenge have their origins in early childhood development.
Obedience to Authority
In his seminal experiments immediately after World War II, psychologist Stanley Milgram wanted to understand how so many otherwise reasonable people could have willingly participated in the Holocaust. What he found was startling and disturbing: the powerful influence of the group was found to be an important determinate of whether otherwise healthy people could be persuaded to become sadistic and abusive (Milgram 1974).
Milgram set up an experimental situation in which a subject (the ‘teacher’) on orders from an authority figure, flips a switch, apparently sending a 450-volt shock to an innocent victim (the ‘learner’). Subjects were told they were participating in a study of the effects of punishment on learning. Every day the ‘teacher’ arrived at the laboratory with another person who would be the one receiving the shocks, (the ‘learner’) someone who was actually an accomplice in the experiment. They were instructed to administer the shocks whenever the “learner” – the actual accomplice – gave a wrong answer to a series of questions. The shocks began at low levels of 15 volts and progressed with every incorrect answer to 450 volts.
As the experiment proceeded, the ‘teacher’ could hear cries coming from the learner and they actually believed that they were inflicting serious injury to the ‘learner’. Many became visibly upset and wanted to stop but when the authority figure told them to keep going, most of them did so, despite the tortured outcries from the victim. In fact, 65% of experimental subjects conformed to the demands of authority to the point at which they supposedly inflicted severe pain or possible death on another human being. This was the “I was only following orders” defense of the Nazi leaders. Milgram repeated the experiments many times, in different countries and the results were consistent – two-thirds of people were willing, under orders of an authority figure, to shock to the limit (Newman 2003). When assured by apparently legitimate authority that there was a good cause for the experiment, subjects overrode their own sensory impressions, empathic responses and ethical concerns and automatically obeyed authority without questioning the grounds on which this authority was based or the goals of established authority. In his conclusion, Milgram warned, “A substantial proportion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without limitations of conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority”(Milgram 1974).
The Lucifer Effect
Philip Zimbardo rose to fame in the early 1970s, when – influenced by Milgram’s work - he conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment, one of the seminal studies into human nature and brutality. Student volunteers at Stanford University were subjected to what was supposed to be two weeks of false imprisonment to see how students some of whom played the role of “prisoners” and others as “prison guards” would react to the situation and to each other. The study had to be curtailed after only six days because of the remarkable and entirely disturbing impact the study situation had on these otherwise healthy, normal, male college students. In less than a week, pacifist students were behaving sadistically toward their peers when they played the role of guards, and normal kids were breaking down emotionally playing the role of prisoners.
During the 6-day simulation, the experimenters found that the guards began--and quickly escalated--harassing and degrading the prisoners "even after most prisoners had ceased resisting and prisoner deterioration had become visibly obvious to them" (p. 92), and appeared to experience this sense of power as "exhilarating" (p. 94) (Haney, Banks et al. 1973). Zimbardo concluded that the effect of power over others can become so intoxicating that (1) power became an end in itself, (2) the power-holder developed an exalted sense of self-worth, (3) power was used increasingly for personal rather than organizational purposes, and (4) the power-holder devalued the worth of others (Kipnis, Castell et al. 1976).
Why Organizational Injustice Matters
Injustice arouses powerful feelings in most human beings, and the more relevant that injustice is to our own lives and experience, the more outraged we are likely to become. In real life work environments, people do not usually keep their feelings about being unjustly treated to themselves. They talk to their peers, seek social support, and in the process, individual views of justice are combined to create collective views about the “organizational justice climate”. Talk about what is fair and not fair in the workplace is a primary way that people have of making sense out of their reality and perceptions. Feelings about organizational justice are contagious, communicated from one individual to each other and maintained across groups (Degoey 2000). Just hearing about someone else’s experience may color the subsequent viewpoints of the listener. People tend especially to rely on other people in situations that are ambiguous and evaluations of what is fair and not fair in an organizational context are often ambiguous and open to interpretation.
Excerpt from Bloom and Farragher (2010), Destroying Sanctuary: The Crisis in Human Service Delivery Systems
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Elster, J. (1990). "Norms of revenge." Ethics 100: 862-885.
Fromm, E. (1973). The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Greenwich, CT, Fawcett Publications, Inc.
Haney, C., C. Banks, et al. (1973). "Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. ." International Journal of Criminology and Penology 1: 69-97.
Kipnis, D., P. J. Castell, et al. (1976). "Metamorphic effects of power." Journal of Applied Psychology 61(127-135).
Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to Authority. New York, Harper Colophon.
Newman, D. M. (2003). Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life. Thousand Oaks, CA, Pine Forge Press.
Stuckless, N. and R. Goranson (1994). "A selected bibliography of literature on revenge." Psychological Reports 75: 803-811.