Along with millions of other viewers worldwide, I watched, reflected on, discussed, and evaluated Game of Thrones on multiple levels, to the point of being slightly embarrassed by the amount of mental energy I was spending on this exercise. The answer? Explore the theoretical bases for aspects of the series that intrigued me as a lawyer and dispute resolution practitioner.
Like millions of other viewers, I felt a deep sense of moral satisfaction (sometimes expressed via air punching jubilation) when numerous villains ‘got what they deserved’. This led me to think further about the concept of ‘just deserts’ and what ‘seeing justice done’ means to humans. ADR theory focuses on collaboration, understanding, and moving forward, but do positive reactions to violent demise in this series hint at a more visceral drive to seek revenge as well? Further reflection suggested that there were interesting nuances in the way that retribution and punishment were meted out in Game of Thrones – that the manner in which various transgressors got their just deserts might be intrinsically linked to both the severity of the transgression, and their moral character. (Yes, I did spend a lot of time thinking about this series).
SPOILER ALERT – if you have missed this series and don’t want to know what happens to some of the bad guys, go straight to *
Who didn’t feel secretly jubilant when the vicious, cruel, entitled and arrogant Ramsay Bolton was left to be torn to pieces by the very hunting dogs he’d trained to cause so much cruelty to others?
Was it only me who thought that whilst Stannis Baratheon clearly had to die, he deserved a death less gruesome, as a once decent man who had lost his way, but somehow still earned a little empathy for his misguided attempts to do the right thing?
And finally, Jaime Lannister, who veered from loathsome to likeable across 8 seasons, but finally met an end that seems somehow fitting with the emergent decency that he exhibited even though he could not ultimately reconcile the moral challenges that he faced.
Anyone who has seen the series will know that this analysis could go on and on.
* End of spoilers
It seemed inevitable that all of these people (and many more) really did have to die, but I wondered how the manner of their deaths might reflect some human need for revenge and retribution in the context of broader ideas of dispute resolution.
550 years BCE, Nebuchadnezzar talked about ‘an eye for an eye’. The related concepts of retribution and revenge have become cultural historical and philosophical pillars of Western criminal punishment principles. This works as a social balance – visibly illustrating the moral standards society expects, punishing the offender as a means of deterrence, and ideally providing satisfaction in the sense of re balancing the moral wrong, to the victim. But is there also a need for the response to deliver some emotional benefit to the sufferer?
The idea of restoration – supplanting revenge punishment and the infliction of pain and consequence on transgressors, is a more recent phenomenon in criminal justice models, and contributes to modern Western criminal punishment theory. Ideas of restoration are also deeply embedded in ADR theory, particularly in facilitative relational processes, where past wrongs are examined, and left behind as the parties move forward.
The last 20 years or so have seen a number of research papers examine the psychological balancing of revenge, and the necessity of forgiveness by those wronged in moving from retribution to restoration. Much of this work is framed in terms of punishing criminal offending, but underlying human reactions addressed in this process are equally present in non-criminal matters.
Peter Strelan and Jan-Willem Van Prooijen  describe forgiveness as the replacement of negative responses with positive ones towards a transgressor. The socio-cognitive steps in this process involve the transgressor doing something to encourage forgiveness, with the victim re-evaluating their response and perhaps developing empathy for the transgressor. But the authors also found that victims who can punish the transgressor are more likely to forgive. This act of causing harm or consequence appears to be important in moving from negative to positive responses to the transgression. Based on a series of controlled empirical studies, the authors propose that “ [T]ransgressions stir emotions of anger, resentment and condemnation and so prime a fundamental human need for balance and equity: That is, transgressors should not be allowed to get away with what they did” and that “seeing offenders suffer for their actions helps victims feel better”. They also point to physiological evidence that “retaliation is an instinctual response to being transgressed against”. Rather than contrasting a “punishment” or “forgiveness” dichotomy, the authors suggest that punishment is a necessary step on the path to forgiveness .
Tyler Okimoto, Michael Wenzel and N J Feather  explore concepts of justice orientation to explain the revenge v forgiveness phenomenon. They suggest that people are either oriented towards retribution, or towards restoration, aligning retributive orientation with people who value unilateral authoritarian imposition of penalty, and restorative orientation with people who prefer to achieve consensus about shared values. They align personality types with these two orientations, suggesting that power plays a significant role. Retributive preferences tend to align with individual even narcissistic personality types with strong adherence to authority and group-based dominance, as well as high individual value of power and self enhancement. Whereas restorative orientation tends to align with a conceptualization of justice as a process to achieve consensus between affected parties. A very simplistic description of these preferences might contrast competitive individual values with collaborative communal values.
Monica Gerber and Jonathan Jackson  define the terms a little differently, describing retribution as both just deserts or revenge. As just desserts, the transgressor pays back for the harm done and justice is achieved by the redistribution of positive and negative experience. As revenge, the victim seeks not only to restore the balance, but to retaliate against the transgressor – “vengeance involves the emotional pleasure of seeing the offender suffer”.
SPOILER ALERT – skip next paragraph
Applying GoT examples to these theories, we might align Sansa Stark’s secret satisfied smile following Ramsay Bolton’s death with the idea of vengeance linked to offender suffering, and Brienne of Tarth’s regretful execution of Stannis Baratheon as a restoration of moral and social balance following his murder of his own brother in pursuit of the Iron Throne.
Gerber and Jackson’s suggestion that emotional pleasure might connect to visible suffering of transgressors is a bold and, in some ways, quite shocking conclusion – surely modern humanity has moved beyond that base need?
ADR, particularly mediation, seeks to move away from the concept of vengeance and retribution on the offender, to a restorative model that seeks to reintroduce balance by empathy, collaboration, and consensus. Yet it seems based on this research that underneath the choreography of mediation, and the implicit presumption that parties behave decently towards each other, there might lurk a much darker and more visceral need to see the other side suffer ‘what they deserve’ in retaliation for their moral transgression. After all, there must be some reason why the term “the sweet taste of revenge” is still in use today.
This train of thought was prompted by the idea that the millions of modern day viewers rejoicing at the often brutal but seemingly fitting retribution that some truly reprehensible characters suffered in Game of Thrones, are the very same people that we see in facilitative ADR processes – in other words, us. If this thread of desire for vengeance retribution and the infliction of suffering is hidden somewhere in the psyche of some if not all of participants in this process, what should we do with that? Is the elephant in the room here that people might be a lot meaner, vindictive, and retaliatory than anyone cares to admit – and that this is not some moral or character flaw but exists at a deeper psychological needs level.
I have never conducted a mediation where the parties, however opposed to each other, came anywhere close to exhibiting the sort of values and behavior that we saw on Game of Thrones. Nor can I imagine comfortably prompting discussion in mediation around a party’s vengeful desire that the other party suffer miserably in consequence of their past actions. But pursuing this line of inquiry has made me realise that the idea of basic psychological human needs may be more complex than I thought.
For a lively and wide ranging review of some of the ideas in this discussion, see Arne Sjostrom 2012 “When does revenge taste sweet: a short tale of revenge.” The Inquisitive Mind, Vol 15.
 P Strelan & J-W van Prooijen 2013 “Retribution and forgiveness: The healing effect of punishing for just deserts”, 43 European Journal of Social Psychology, Vol.43, pp. 544-553.
 T Okimoto, M Wenzel & N Feather 2016 “Retribution and restoration as general orientations towards justice” European Journal of Personality, Vol 26, pp. 255-275
[3[ M Gerber & J Jackson 2013 “Retribution as revenge and retribution as just deserts” Social Justice Research, Vol 26, pp.61-80