Psychology is great at confirming or challenging all of the old sayings. We previously looked at studies that examined whether it was true that “you shouldn’t go to bed because of an argument”, that “time flies when you are having fun” and that “ignorance is happiness”.
Now a paper in Social Psychology and Personality Science investigated whether “revenge is sweet”. Andreas B. Eder and colleagues from the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg find that people seem to get something positive out of demanding revenge – but it can also leave a bitter aftertaste.
Some studies have shown that victims of retaliation can make the victim of a transgression feel better. But other work suggests that people are overestimating how good revenge will feel, or that they actually end up feeling bad.
Perhaps it does both, argued the authors of the new study: You might feel good right after vengeance, but even the act of retaliation could remind you of the original transgression and make you a little miserable. If so, you would expect that “sweet” feeling to be an instant, fleeting response that may not show up if you just ask people about their feelings. Instead, the team decided to test people’s reactions to revenge using a more indirect measure.
Participants played a game to test their reaction times, allegedly against two other players over the internet (the other “players” were not real, which was not known to the participants). Before each round they had to nominate one of the other players who, in the event of a win, would be blown up with a noise. But when they lost, they either received a sound explosion from the winning player themselves or saw the other losing player receive the sound explosion. (In reality, the computer alone determined who won or lost). It is crucial that one of the players selected the participant when he won, usually sounding the participant and not the other player, while the other player showed no preference.
The participants also did a “punishment” task. They saw pictures of the other two players with a frame that quickly switched between the two pictures and had to press a button when it highlighted the player they wanted to punish (again with a loud noise). If the contestants were out for revenge, they would probably choose to punish the player who picked on them. But for some of the attempts – unknown to participants – the computer made the decision for them, with half of the cases punishing the provoking player and half choosing the non-provoking player. These were the studies the researchers were interested in.
Finally, after each study, the participants completed the “affect misallocation procedure”. A Chinese character is considered and rated as pleasant or unpleasant – it is an indirect measure of how a participant feels at this point in time.
The team found that people were more likely to rate Chinese characters after punishing the player who picked them up than after punishing the non-provocative player. However, this only applied to participants who displayed “vengeful” behavior (ie, those who chose to bother the provocative player with noise more often). So the results suggested that vengeful people feel more positive after taking revenge on someone who wronged them.
But an alternative interpretation was that the participants felt worse after punishing the non-provoking player. To find out if this was the case, the team added an option in a second study not to penalize either player. Participants seeking revenge again rated the Chinese characters as more pleasant than the non-provocative player after punishing the provoking player. But interestingly, their response was even More positive if no one was punished.
The results show that revenge “is neither completely sweet nor completely bitter,” the authors conclude. People generally feel bad after punishing someone they write – but when they take revenge on a transgressor, they experience a certain joy that counteracts some (but not all) of those bad feelings.
There are some obvious limitations to the study. As the authors note, it is unclear exactly what processes are involved in evaluating Chinese characters (in fact, some researchers have argued that people’s answers to this test are not as “implicit” as assumed). And of course, transgressions and acts of revenge in real life will be very different from this man-made laboratory task. Still, it’s an interesting piece of research that shows that our feelings and behavior are far more nuanced than the old proverbs suggest.
– Sweet revenge feels less bitter: Spontaneous affective reactions after revenge
Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is editor of BPS Biomedarticles