Revenge Is Sweet – But Also Bitter

By Matthew Warren

Psychology is great at confirming — or challenging — all the old sayings. We’ve previously looked at studies examining whether it’s true that “you shouldn’t go to bed on an argument”, that “time flies when you’re having fun”, and that “ignorance is bliss”.

Now a paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science has investigated whether “revenge is sweet”. Andreas B. Eder and colleagues at Julius-Maximilians-University of Würzburg find that people do seem to get something positive out of exacting revenge — but it can leave a bitter aftertaste too.

Some studies have found that retaliation can make the victim of a transgression feel better. But other work suggests that people overestimate how good revenge will make them feel, or that they actually end up feeling bad.

Perhaps it does both, reasoned the authors of the new study: you might feel good straight after taking revenge, but the very act of retaliation could remind you of the original transgression and make you feel a bit miserable. If that’s the case, then you’d expect that “sweet” feeling to be an immediate, fleeting response, which might not show up if you just ask people about their feelings. So instead, the team decided to test people’s responses to enacting revenge using a more indirect measure.

Participants played a game testing their reaction times, supposedly against two other players via the internet (unbeknownst to the participants, these other “players” weren’t real). Before each round, they had to nominate one of the other players to be blasted with noise if they won. But if they lost, they either received a sound blast themselves from the winning player, or saw the other losing player receive the sound blast. (In reality, who won or lost was determined solely by the computer). Crucially, one of the players picked on the participant when they won, usually blasting the participant with sound rather than the other player, while the other player didn’t show a preference.

Participants also completed a “punishment” task. They saw images of the two other players with a border that quickly alternated between the two pictures, and had to hit a key when it highlighted the player they wanted to punish (again, with a loud noise). If participants were out for revenge, then presumably they would choose to punish the player who had been picking on them. But for a few of the trials — unknown to the participants – the computer made the decision for them, half the time choosing to punish the provoking player and half the time choosing the non-provoking player. These were the trials the researchers were interested in.

Finally, after each trial participants completed the “affect misattribution procedure”. This involves viewing a Chinese character and rating it as pleasant or unpleasant — it’s considered an indirect measure of how a participant is feeling at that point in time.

The team found that people were more likely to rate Chinese characters as pleasant after they punished the player who had been picking on them than after they punished the non-provoking player. But this was only true of participants who showed “revenge-seeking” behaviour (i.e. those who chose to blast the provoking player more often with noise). So the results suggested that revenge-seeking people do feel more positive after taking revenge against someone who has wronged them.

But an alternative interpretation was that participants felt worse after punishing the non-provoking player. To figure out whether this was the case, in a second study the team added an option to not punish either player. Revenge-seeking participants again rated the Chinese characters as more pleasant after punishing the provoking player compared to the non-provoking player. But, interestingly, their response was even more positive when no-one was punished.

The results show that revenge “is neither wholly sweet nor wholly bitter”, the authors conclude. People generally feel bad after punishing someone, they write — but if they are taking revenge on a transgressor then they experience a certain amount of pleasure which counteracts some (but not all) of those bad feelings.

There are some obvious limitations to the study. As the authors note, it’s unclear exactly what processes are at play when rating Chinese characters (in fact, some researchers have argued that people’s responses on this test are not as “implicit” as assumed). And of course, transgressions and acts of revenge in real life are going to be very different from this artificial, lab-based task. Still, it’s an interesting piece of research that shows that our feelings and behaviours are far more nuanced than the old sayings imply.

Sweet Revenge Feels Less Bitter: Spontaneous Affective Reactions After Revenge Taking

Matthew Warren (@MattBWarren) is Editor of BPS Research Digest