Only recently, however, have economists turned their attention to vengeance and tried to measure it in the real world. In a working paper published last month on the Web site of the National Bureau of Economic Research (www.nber.org), Naci H. Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University, gathered information on 89,000 people in 53 countries to draw a map of vengefulness. What he found was that among the most vengeful are women, older people, the poor and residents of high-crime areas.
“There was a question of whether or not we can quantify vengeful feelings in a scientific fashion,” Mr. Mocan said. “It’s the first analysis of the issue looking at actual data.”
It turns out that personal attributes — age, income, gender — as well as the characteristics of one’s culture and country contribute to a person’s desire for revenge, Mr. Mocan said. “A feeling such as vengeance,” he said, “which can be considered primal, is nonetheless influenced by the economic and social circumstances of the person and the country he or she lives in.”
For economists, Mr. Mocan’s work, while still preliminary, opens up a new area for exploration. “I think this is really important research,” said Daniel Houser, a professor at George Mason University specializing in experimental economics and emotion. “I’m not aware of any work in economics that tries to capture individual differences in vengeful feelings.”
In the last couple of decades a lot of work has shown how important trust and reciprocity are in developing efficient markets, Mr. Houser explained, and what helps to create trust is punishment. Yet punishment can also spiral out of control, and people can get stuck in a retaliatory cycle, just as in a nasty divorce or a longstanding family feud.
“How do you calibrate the proper level of punishment to promote effective market relations?” Mr. Houser asked. It may turn out, he said, that “how much you want to punish is connected to the likelihood of creating a more formal market economy.”
Mr. Mocan collected data compiled by a United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute survey from the 1990s and 2000. People were asked what would be an appropriate sentence for a 20-year-old man found guilty of stealing a color television if it was his second offense. The punishments ranged from alternatives to prison through two to six months in jail, all the way to a life sentence. Mr. Mocan tried to take account of the different values of a television in different countries, the effectiveness of the legal system and the going rate, if you will, for other crimes.
In China, Romania and Botswana, for example, nearly 40 percent of participants preferred a prison sentence of four or more years. In South Africa the rate is 25 percent; 18 to 20 percent in Egypt, Ukraine and Paraguay; 16 percent in Canada and Indonesia; 12 percent in the United States and the Philippines; about 4 percent in Norway and Slovenia; and 1 percent in Belgium and Spain.
Within a given country, people who have been victims of the same kind of crime (here, a burglary) tend to be more vengeful, but not if they have been victims of a different crime, like mugging.
Most of Mr. Mocan’s findings confirm what researchers in different disciplines have already found: that vengeful feelings are stronger in countries with low levels of income and education, a weak rule of law and those who recently experienced a war or are ethnically or linguistically fragmented. Anthropologists tend to believe that vengeful feelings were useful in binding a family or group together in early human society. They were protective devices before states were established and did the job of punishing wrongdoers.
“The results make good intuitive sense, confirming what we already suspected,” said Tyler Cowen, the author of “Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting and Motivate Your Dentist.”
-Calculating Economics of an Eye for an Eye