Psychology behind Retaliation- Part 1

Picture credits:

A man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well.” Francis Bacon

The very first time I read this line, I couldn’t understand it. Fortunately, the second time I could.

Revenge is such a common word in our dictionary. We don’t speak of it very often. However, we don’t want to refrain ourselves from taking revenge from someone who has hurt us. We feel like we deserve justice and the offender must pay the price. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

By ‘we’ I am not saying I am an exception. I am not saying I don’t feel like taking revenge from people. When someone says something bad to me or hurts me emotionally (especially when it is deliberate) I just feel so angry that I want to retaliate believing it is going to make me feel good.

Or does it?

Does retaliation actually make me feel good?

Does it happen with everyone?

Revenge an emotional catharsis

We have always believed that exhibiting our emotions results in catharsis which is called an emotional catharsis. By venting out aggression we take anger out of our bodies only to find that it make us feel good. This idea is not entirely wrong but it is not entirely correct either. It is true we must vent out our emotions because repressing our emotions is dangerous. When we repress our emotions we bury them in our unconscious minds and very soon they come back to haunt us. So, in a way exhibiting our aggression or any other emotions is very helpful. But it doesn’t last very long. Seeking revenge feels sweet and it is sweet only in the short term; only in the moment. After that it only takes a toll on our emotional & physical health and keeps us engaged in a vicious cycle of retaliation.  Even scientists agree.

Revenge is sweet. But not too sweet

A very important research was conducted by a group of Swiss researchers that validated the idea that seeking revenge feels good. Researchers divided participants into groups of two people and made them take part in an economic exchange game. The game was to split a pot of money between the partners. Some participants were wronged by their partners in the sense that splitting of money wasn’t fair. When participants who trusted their partners were given a chance to punish them, researchers scanned their brains to record brain activity while they were busy introspecting how to seek revenge. And researchers found that there was a rush in the brain’s activity while participants were busy taking their decisions. The brain area showing activity is called caudate nucleus (an area in human brain involved in processing rewards). Therefore, validating that revenge feels good to humans.

But that’s not all.

Scientists wanted to know what actually happens in brain’s activity not in the immediate moment of retaliation but after some period of time, say, weeks or months later. Kevin Carlsmith along with Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University conducted a research to prove that there is more to revenge than we imagine. A group of participants were randomly selected and they were divided into groups of four people. All the four people were given a dollar and they could either pitch in the group pot or keep for themselves. Furthermore, researchers said that they will be adding a 40% more dividend to the whole group before dividing the boosted pot among all four members of the groups. This move by the researchers provided two possibilities: the best for the whole group would be if all the four members of the group donate their dollar while what is best for an individual member is if they keep their dollar and also get a share from the final amount accumulated in the pot. But there was a catch. One member in each group was a confederate and acted as a free rider (someone who keeps his dollar and also receives a share from the final amount in pot). Some participants were not given a chance to do anything after knowing that they had been morally violated by one of their members while other participants were given an opportunity to seek revenge for an unjust act. Both the groups were then supposed to record their feelings immediately and after 10 minutes. Also, some participants were asked to just pen down their feelings of how they would feel if they had seen a selfish act but were not allowed to retaliate.

What were the findings?

  1. People who were allowed to punish free riders felt a lot more worse than they had imagined they would had there been a chance to take revenge or retaliate.
  2. People who were allowed to punish free riders also felt a lot worse than the ones who did not do anything to seek revenge.
  3. Ten minutes later punishers continued to think over the selfish act and that eventually prevented them from letting go. Therefore, not helping them much emotionally.

The study is highly significant because it tells us that revenge is not the end of our pain. We think revenge will make us feel good and it will solve everything. But reality is something different. There is more to revenge than we imagine.