Revenge really does make you feel better, study finds
There’s a wonderful moment in the sitcom Frasier, where Niles – desperately seeking revenge on a bully who tormented him – is asked whether he’s ever heard that “living well is the best revenge” by his brother. “It’s a wonderful expression – I just don’t know how true it is,” Niles replies. “You don’t see it turning up in a lot of opera plots: ‘Ludwig, maddened by the poisoning of his entire family, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act by living well.’”
“Whereupon Woton, upon discovering his deception, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act again by living even better than the Duke.”
It turns out that Niles may have been right: direct revenge may be highly effective at improving our mood when wronged, according to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Chester and C Nathan DeWall. Strap in: this study involves voodoo dolls.
Researchers asked 156 participants to write an essay on a personal topic of their choosing, and then to swap essays with other participants for feedback. Unbeknown to the writers, half of them would be receiving instant nasty feedback to their work, like an internet comment section had broken into the real world. This feedback (actually written by the researchers) read “one of the worst essays I have EVER read”.
All participants had their mood measured, but those with bad feedback were given the chance to take their anger out on a virtual voodoo doll imagined to be the person who’d slated their work. This act of pointless imaginary vengeance improved the mood of participants to the degree that their mood was indistinguishable from those praised for their work.
Just because revenge makes us feel better doesn’t mean that’s why we seek it out of course, which is why the researchers undertook a second study to investigate the motives behind actions. This one is a bit more complex: 154 participants were invited into the laboratory and immediately given a pill that they were told would boost their cognitive functions in the test to come. Some of the participants were also told that the pill had an unusual side effect: once its effects kicked in, their mood would be fixed and unchangeable.
Yeah, neither of those things were true. The pill was an inert placebo. Nonetheless, with the participants believing that the pill had magical properties, they were invited to play a computer game with two other players where they passed a ball between each other. What they were actually doing was playing against an AI: half of them programmed to include the human player, and another instructed to freeze the human out 90% of the time.
After measures were taken to see how rejected each participant felt, players were given the chance to take revenge on those that snubbed them in a second game. This one involved hitting a buzzer before the other players – those that lost would be inflicted to a blast of noise through their headphones, set by the player who won. Players were able to inflict a 105-decibel blast on their opponents, if they wanted to. As you might expect, players who had been left out mostly hit their opponents with sounds at the top end of the scale, while those that had got even playtime kept their blasts to the lower decibel end of the spectrum.
However, things got interesting when those told that pill had a side effect were informed it had just kicked in and their mood couldn’t be altered. They didn’t bother hitting their opponents with higher volumes, sticking to the low-decibel punishments doled out by those who hadn’t been wronged, despite recording levels of rejection matching their vindictive peers.
The thinking is that because the participants believed the revenge wouldn’t make them feel any better, they didn’t bother. Worse, Chester and DeWall speculate that “to obtain the positive effect associated with retaliatory aggression, individuals may actively seek out provocation in their daily lives”.
That’s not a great way to live, and the researchers suggest that people find other ways to regain contentedness: reflection, meditation and so on. “An eye for an eye only ends up leaving the whole world blind,” as Ghandi once said.
(Unless of course, you get all the eyes before everyone else. Then you might just end up feeling better.)
Image: Josh McGinn used under Creative Commons