“Sweet is revenge,” Lord Byron wrote in “Don Juan” — and how could it be otherwise?
Who wouldn’t enjoy getting even with a sadistic boss, a two-faced friend who slept with your spouse or that teacher who had it in for your child for no good reason?
Most of us have revenge fantasies, human behavior researchers say, and nearly everyone believes that punishing someone who did him wrong would feel tremendously satisfying. But new studies suggest the reality of revenge is far different. Acting on vengeful thoughts often isn’t nearly as gratifying as expected and — surprisingly — can even make people feel worse.
Still, the delicious pleasure anticipated from taking revenge is such a powerful drive that it appears to be hard-wired in the brain.
University of Zurich scientists found that merely contemplating revenge stimulates a region of the brain called the dorsal striatum, which is known to become active in anticipation of a reward or pleasure, such as making money or eating good food.
In the study, 14 volunteers earned money if they cooperated with one another in games. A double-crosser pretended to cooperate but secretly took an unfair share of the cash. Victims could retaliate by imposing a fine on the betrayer, though they sometimes had to spend their own money to carry out the punishment.
All 14 volunteers chose to retaliate if they could do so at no charge, and 12 out of 14 did so even if it cost them additional money. When they decided to seek revenge, the dorsal striatum lighted up on a PET scan. Those whose brains were activated the most were willing to spend the most to punish the double-crosser, notes study co-author Ernst Fehr, whose research was published in Science in 2004.
It’s not surprising that our brains signal “pleasure” at the prospect of punishing someone who wronged us, says Michael McCullough, a University of Miami psychologist and author of “Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.” Although it can be a misguided, costly craving in the modern world, evolutionary psychologists believe the thirst for revenge ensured our ancestors’ survival — retaliation was the only way for victims to deter aggressors from harming them or their tribes in the future.
“Revenge burrowed into the brain’s reward system — it hitched a ride on our neurons — because it really was effective at deterring future harm,” says McCullough, who notes that revenge is ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom.
Acts worthy of vengeance are seemingly everywhere — we need look no further than across the room to find targets.
Revenge fantasies are rampant at workplaces of every type, says Robert Bies, an organizational behavior expert at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., who has studied revenge on the job for 16 years. In roughly 1,000 face-to-face interviews, Bies has heard all about “free riders” who skated by on the work of others, bosses who took credit for their subordinates’ ideas, sneaky co-workers who stole plum assignments, managers who promoted their pets over more qualified employees and more. Although the employees in his studies said they yearned to get even, about one-third of them did nothing, he says.
The two-thirds who did act typically chose indirect or passive-aggressive methods, such as bad-mouthing the offender or giving someone the silent treatment. The retaliation was usually minor compared with the (perceived) harm that provoked it.
“These are mosquito bites; they’re irritants,” says Bies, who co-wrote the 2009 book “Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge — And How to Stop It.” But often people say they feel better after making even token attempts to retaliate, he adds.
Bies has seen the same revenge behavior patterns at diverse job sites — churches, high-tech firms, universities, consumer product companies, government agencies. There are gender differences, though. Men retaliate slightly more than women. And though the majority of their acts still are indirect, men use more overt weapons than women, who tend to stick to gossip and covert sabotage.
In the personal arena, revenge research is sparse. For instance, nobody knows if getting even with a cheating spouse actually makes anyone feel better. But studies that simulate how it feels to be cheated on financially strongly suggest that vengeful acts can backfire.
For example, social psychologist Kevin Carlsmith of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., used a variation of the game with a secret double-crosser to explore whether revenge is as satisfying as we expect. In a series of three studies, he gave players the chance to earn money if they cooperated with each other — but he also included a “ringer” who secretly shortchanged the others. When the cheater was revealed, nearly everyone took the opportunity to punish him, and they were willing to pay to do so.
Although players predicted they’d feel much better after they retaliated, the reverse turned out to be true. The researchers measured their mood on a seven-point scale (with 7 being extremely satisfied) and found that avengers scored 1.5 points lower than other players who didn’t get a chance to retaliate, according to results published in 2008 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. That’s probably because they kept thinking about the ringer, while those who couldn’t retaliate didn’t dwell on the incident, says Carlsmith, who conducted the studies with colleagues at Harvard University and the University of Virginia.
Another study supports his hunch that rumination and retaliation are linked.
In an unusual experiment, 600 college students wrote essays that were given poor grades and marked with the comment, “This is one of the worst essays I have read!” Then some of the students were asked to hit a punching bag while looking at a large photo of the insulting grader. Others were shown a generic picture of someone exercising while punching the bag, and a control group just sat quietly. Afterward, everyone filled out a survey to measure their level of anger.
It turned out that the students who looked at the photo of the grader while punching the bag were angriest. And, in another part of the experiment, they “punished” the grader more severely than students in the other two groups. The findings were published in 2002 in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
The results suggest that dwelling on people who did us wrong tends to amplify anger and the instinct to retaliate, says study leader Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University in Columbus.
Dour men and women who see rotten motives everywhere tend to seek revenge more than others, says Bies. That’s probably because they’re more likely to stew over events that others would shrug off, seeing them instead as evidence that people are “out to get them” and thus deserving of retaliation. But there is no true “personality profile” of avengers, he says.
Environmental factors play a role too. When trust is low and people feel they can’t gain justice through official channels, the vigilante instinct tends to take over.
“The environment counts the most here,” McCullough says. “The penchant for revenge under certain circumstances is within all of us.”