We began to discuss the line between Revenge or Justice a few days back. Click Here if you didn’t follow the discussion. Here is Part Two.

 

The Revenge Paradox

Ask someone why they seek revenge, though, and they’re likely to tell you their goal is catharsis, says Kevin Carlsmith, PhD, a social psychologist at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. But exactly the opposite happens, according to a study he published in the May 2008 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 95, No. 6).

In a series of experiments, he and his colleagues Daniel Gilbert, PhD, at Harvard, and Timothy Wilson, PhD, at the University of Virginia, set up a group investment game with students where if everyone cooperated, everyone would benefit equally. However, if someone refused to invest his or her money, that person would disproportionately benefit at the group’s expense.

Carlsmith planted a secret experimenter in each group and had them convince everyone to invest equally. But when it came time to put up the money, the plants defected. The free riders, as Carlsmith calls them, earned an average of $5.59, while the other players earned around $2.51.

Then Carlsmith offered some groups a way to get back at the free rider: They could spend some of their own earnings to financially punish the group’s defector.

“Virtually everybody was angry over what happened to them,” Carlsmith says, “and everyone given the opportunity [for revenge] took it.”

He then gave the students a survey to measure their feelings after the experiment. He also asked the groups who’d been allowed to punish the free rider to predict how they’d feel if they hadn’t been allowed to, and he asked the non-punishing groups how they thought they’d feel if they had. In the feelings survey, the punishers reported feeling worse than the non-punishers, but predicted they would have felt even worse had they not been given the opportunity to punish. The non-punishers said they thought they would feel better if they’d had that opportunity for revenge—even though the survey identified them as the happier group. In other words, both groups thought revenge would be sweet, but their own reported feelings agreed more with MLK Jr. than with Exodus.

The results suggest that, despite conventional wisdom, people—at least those with Westernized notions of revenge—are bad at predicting their emotional states following revenge, Carlsmith says. The reason revenge may stoke anger’s flames may lie in our ruminations, he says. When we don’t get revenge, we’re able to trivialize the event, he says. We tell ourselves that because we didn’t act on our vengeful feelings, it wasn’t a big deal, so it’s easier to forget it and move on. But when we do get revenge, we can no longer trivialize the situation. Instead, we think about it. A lot.

“Rather than providing closure, it does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh,” he says.

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