From Hamlet to Sweeney Todd, some of our greatest theatrical characters have been motivated by the quest for vengeance. That their obsessions led only to greater tragedy has not tempered our belief that enacting revenge can lead to sweet satisfaction.
In fact, getting even often makes us feel worse, according to a paper entitled "The Paradoxical Consequences of Revenge," just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
A research team led by psychologist Kevin Carlsmith of Colgate University conducted a series of tests in which college students were given a chance to earn small amounts of money. The game was set up so that one of the players urged the others to cooperate (which increased earnings for all), then failed to cooperate himself (which led to him or her getting the largest share of the winnings).
One group of students was given the opportunity to retaliate against the “free rider” by subtracting part of his or her earnings; almost all chose to do so. Another group was not presented with that option.
“The punishers were less happy than those who did not have the opportunity to punish,” the study states. Ten minutes after the game was over, they were much more likely than the non-punishers to still be stewing about the unfairness of it all – thoughts that contributed to their continued agitation.
In interviews, the participants who had chosen to enact punishment insisted they would be feeling worse if they had not been given the opportunity.
“People believed that exacting revenge would bring closure, in the sense that they would think less about the free rider, when in fact it had the opposite effect – punishing the free rider made people think about her more, which in turn made them feel worse,” the researchers conclude.
So why do we consistently misjudge the emotional rewards of revenge?
“One reason may be that seeing a transgressor receive his or her comeuppance is pleasurable under some circumstances,” the scholars theorize. “People may overgeneralize from such situations.”
To Carlsmith and his colleagues, this mistaken belief is further evidence of how bad we are at predicting what actions will bring us happiness. “This finding is particularly striking in the domain of anger,” they write, noting that countless writers and philosophers over the centuries have extolled the satisfaction of getting even – an impulse that now appears to be extremely overrated, if not counterproductive.
No doubt researchers who have come to a different conclusion are currently plotting their revenge.