Revenge is sweet after all
Revenge really does make us feel better. Social rejection incites us to seek to repair our mood by any means possible, and that includes causing harm to others. This is why…
A recent study carried out by researchers at the University of Kentucky, led by psychologists David Chester and C. Nathan DeWall, has confirmed that we feel measurably happier if we retaliate against those who hurt us. They discovered that people actually seek out opportunities to perform acts of vengeance specifically to make themselves feel better.
In a novel experiment, the researchers asked 156 volunteers to write essays focusing on a personal topic. The next step was to then let other participants read them and provide feedback.
But with one group, one of the researchers pretended to be a participant and gave everyone disproportionate negative feedback such as ‘this is one of the worst essays I have ever read.’ The team measured the participant’s mood both before they sat down to write their essays and again after they were given the chance to express their disappointment and anger over the negative review.
The participants were allowed to express their frustration and aggression by sticking pins in a voodoo doll while imagining it was the person who had criticised their essay.
Not only did sticking pins in the dolls improve the mood of the dejected participants, the researchers also noticed their mood became indistinguishable from volunteers who received positive feedback.
To understand the motives behind aggressive behaviour, the researchers conducted a second study with another group of 154 participants.
In this test, subjects were given a pill they were told would enhance their thinking for upcoming tests in the study – in reality, a placebo. Some of the participants were told that the pill came with a side effect – their mood would become fixed and unchanging.
All the subjects were then asked to play a computer game with two other players where they batted a ball around. A third of the players were purposely given the cold shoulder by the other players. When the game was over, the participants were questioned as to how rejected they felt before being given the opportunity to take revenge on those who had ignored them during the game.
The second game let the players punish the losers with a blast of noise through their headphones. Participants who had been treated unfairly in the first game chose to inflict more frequent and louder blasts of noise on the opponent who had rejected them earlier.
The revealing part of the experiment was that this did not happen with the volunteers who had been told the pill they took would steady their mood. The researchers reminded these participants during the break in the game that the pill was fully active and their mood would remain stable for at least an hour. Those participants kept the sound blasts to a minimum.
Although they had felt rejected by the other participants, they believed the pill would prevent them from improving their mood and so they didn’t take any opportunity to seek revenge.
The results of the study suggest that even though aggressive actions may seem pointless, they can have a purpose and deliver an outcome, if an unexpected one. Perhaps not as satisfying as removing someone’s testes with a rusty knife, but perhaps a step in the right direction nonetheless.