Revenge is a little like bingeing on an entire cake or texting an ex in the wee hours of the morning: something that seems like a good idea, but soon enough reveals itself to be a mistake. The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to think of those long-term consequences when it feels so good in the moment — especially when, as a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology illustrates, retaliating against people who have wronged you really does make you feel measurably happier.
For the first part of the study, as Alex Fradera explained over at BPS Research Digest, the authors had their subjects write personal essays, then told them they’d be swapping with another volunteer to provide feedback; some of the participants instead received pre-written, mean-spirited messages trashing their writing. The researchers then gave them all a voodoo doll, telling the participants to pretend it was the person who had insulted them — and sticking it with pins, it turned out, went a long way toward boosting participants’ moods.
The problem, though, was that the link between revenge and intention still wasn’t clear: Participants felt better after they took advantage of the opportunity to (sort of) harm their foes, but would they actively seek out that same opportunity in search of the same end? To find out, the study authors recruited a separate group of 154 volunteers, giving each one a pill that would allegedly sharpen their cognitive skills (actually just a placebo). Some subjects were also led to believe that the pill had a mood-stabilizing effect, effectively locking them into whatever mood they were feeling until the medication wore off.
Afterwards, participants played what they believed to be a team-based computer game, with some games programmed to make them feel ignored by the other players. When that was done, the researchers gave the volunteers a chance to “punish” their teammates by sending an uncomfortably loud blast through their headphones. And most of them went for it, with a weird twist: The only rejected subjects who didn’t enthusiastically exact their revenge were the ones who thought they’d taken the mood-freezing pill — who “presumably believed they had no prospect of improving mood, so there would be no point in lashing out,” as Fradera put it.
In other words, participants didn’t just enjoy revenge; they sought it out as a way of making themselves feel better. It’s not exactly a flattering reflection of our collective psyches, but it’s one of those things that’s nevertheless good to know; once you’re aware, at least you can try to channel your rage into more productive outlets. Maybe talk it out, or just take a few deep breaths. Or, if all else fails, swearing feels pretty good, too.