A colleague steals your idea and then undermines you in front of the boss. It’s human nature to want revenge. But will getting even make you feel better in the long run?
People are motivated to seek revenge — to harm someone who has harmed them — when they feel attacked, mistreated or socially rejected. Getting an eye for an eye, Old Testament-style, is thought to bring a sense of catharsis and closure.
A growing body of research suggests it may have the opposite effect.
While most of us won't engage in the type of vengeful displays that grab headlines or warrant prison time, our everyday lives often include small acts of retaliation such as gossiping about a neighbor who snubbed you, lashing out on Yelp after poor customer service or engaging in the endless Twitter tit for tat typified by certain elected officials.
Evolutionary psychologists believe we are hard-wired for revenge. Without laws and prisons, our earliest ancestors relied on the fear of retaliation to help keep the peace and correct injustices. “Acts of revenge not only sought to deter a second harmful act by a wrongdoer but also acted as an insurance policy against future harm by others, a warning signal that you’re someone who will not tolerate mistreatment,” says Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology at the University of Miami.
In modern life, betrayal and social rejection hurt. The desire to repair that pain and improve our mood may be one of the things that motivates us to seek revenge, according to six studies published this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In one experiment, researchers asked 156 college students to write a short essay that would be submitted for comments. The essays were randomly assigned to receive either positive feedback (“great essay!”) or negative ones (“one of the worst essays that I have EVER read!”). Afterward, all participants were given a test that measured their emotional state, and then offered the chance to retaliate by sticking pins into a voodoo doll that represented the grader of the essay.
Researchers found what we might suspect: Getting revenge felt good. After sticking their dolls, the vengeful participants, whose moods slumped after they read their negative feedback, reported a rise in their moods to a level on par with those who had received the positive comments. (Those who received positive feedback showed no change in mood after the voodoo doll task.)
In another experiment, 167 participants were invited to play a video game where some players were snubbed by others. Rejected players were given the chance to seek revenge by increasing the volume in the other players’ headphones. But before they could retaliate, some received what they were told was a cognition-enhancing drug (actually, a placebo) that would steady their mood for 60 minutes.
While most wronged players turned up the volume, those who took the placebo — and presumably thought they wouldn’t get a mood boost for doing so — were less likely to retaliate, supporting the notion that we choose revenge because we think it will make us feel better, explains David Chester, a Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professor who studies the psychological and biological processes involved in human aggression.
Revenge may provide a lift, but the positive effects appear to be fleeting, according to new research by Chester that has not yet been published. “Revenge can feel really good in the moment,” he says, “but when we follow up with people five minutes, 10 minutes and 45 minutes later, they actually report feeling worse than they did before they sought revenge.”
Seeking revenge can backfire — but not for the reasons you may think. University of Virginia psychology professor Timothy Wilson and colleagues conducted a study in 2008 on the "paradoxical consequences" of revenge.
Study participants played an investment game where they were told that they could earn money if they all cooperated but that if one player betrayed the group, that person would earn more and the other players would earn less, an experimental construct known as the “free-rider paradigm.”
Researchers staged the game so that players were double-crossed and some were given the chance to retaliate. When asked by researchers how they imagined they would feel after seeking revenge, the players predicted it would make them feel better. But when surveyed afterward, those who had retaliated reported feeling worse than players who didn’t get the opportunity to punish and so had “moved on.”
Seeking revenge may remind us of the pain we experienced when we were wronged and can make an event appear even larger in our minds, Wilson theorizes. “By not retaliating, we’re able to find other ways of coping, like telling ourselves that it wasn’t such a big deal,” he says.
Ruminating about getting even — stewing over what the person did to you and what you would like to do in return — can interfere with day-to-day well-being and happiness.
"When someone persists in revenge fantasies, over time they can develop anxiety and remorse, as well as feelings of shame," says California-based psychotherapist Beverly Engel, who treats clients who have been abused and often struggle with vengeful thoughts. These feelings can also take up important cognitive resources, depleting you of time and energy that could be better spent on healthier, more constructive ways of dealing with anger, such as learning to accept the injustice, putting yourself in the other person's shoes or acknowledging that you, too, may have hurt someone in similar ways, says Engel, author of the book "It Wasn't Your Fault."
Research suggests that when it comes to valuable relationships, "what the angry mind ultimately wants is a change of heart from the transgressor," McCullough says. He points to studies showing that when a victim receives an explanation and an apology, the desire for revenge weakens. (Other research suggests that doctors who apologize to patients when they have made a mistake may decrease their risk of a lawsuit.)
It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the most helpful thing a wronged party can do is to create conditions that make it easier for the person who hurt you to be honest about what they did and to take responsibility, McCullough says.
“You’re not giving the person a free pass,” he says, but it may be in your best interest “to stay open to an apology” and “to help pave a road” that would allow the offender to make it up to you.
Take this year’s World Series, for example, in which Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish was the victim of a racially insensitive insult and gesture by a player on the Houston Astros. Instead of retaliating, Darvish accepted the player’s apology, tweeted that “no one is perfect” and asked fans to “stay positive and move forward instead of focusing on anger.”
“Revenge may make you feel better for a moment,” McCullough adds, “but making the effort to repair a valuable relationship can pay bigger dividends over a lifetime.”