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Why Getting Revenge Isn't Worth It

The best revenge is none at all.

Recently, an editor at PT asked me to dig up some good juicy stories about revenge. Most of the ones I found dealt with how the scorned practiced retribution against their (ex) lovers' bodily appendages à la Lorena Bobbit.

Reading about these unique crimes of passion got me thinking about my own style of revenge, which surprisingly, is NADA. But why? Is it because I'm a Leo--so self absorbed that I'm not willing to invest the energy and finesse required into seeking meticulously planned retribution? Perhaps, it is simply because I've never been hurt so badly... no wait, not true either.

I had a cheating boyfriend too. Like these newsworthy women, I was also enraged, but my rage never turned into a breaking news segment on the 6'oclock news. Instead, I locked myself in the bathroom for hours, trying to talk to my best friend, hoping she would tell me why this happened? I was so busy trying to understand the dynamics of the situation, I didn't know what to do. Was revenge a healthy response?

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According to social psychologist Kevin Carlsmith of Colgate, the reason for revenge is to achieve catharsis. However, his recent study suggests that revenge is, in fact, counterproductive to achieving that goal. The study explains that those who seek to punish continue to think about the perpetrator, keeping the pain and the anger very much alive in their minds, while those who "move on" or "get over it" think less about the perpetrator. Carlsmith's team tested this theory by staging an interactive game where players could earn money if they all cooperated with one another. However, if a player did not cooperate, he could earn more at the expense of the others. Researchers planted certain "free riders" who would encourage everyone else to cooperate, but would later not cooperate himself. Two groups were tested--one that could punish the "free rider" (and they all did), and one that could not punish.

Interestingly, the results showed that revenge was not as sweet as it sounds. The punishers reported feeling worse than the non-punishers, but also predicted that they would have felt far worse if they hadn't been able to punish. On the other hand, the non-punishers, the happier group, believed that they would have been happier if they had the opportunity to seek revenge against the "free rider."

What does this all mean?

Carlsmith says, "Rather than providing closure, it does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh."

He suggests that when we don't get revenge, we can trivialize the event. We are able to tell ourselves that because we didn't go crazy (hacking away our boyfriend's body parts), it wasn't the end of the world, after all. That way, it's easier to move on.

The verdict?

Studies say no to revenge. It only hurts yourself. Still, love, hate or hurt can drive any woman crazy, so men out there, please be on your best behavior.

Main Reference:

Carlsmith, Kevin M., Wilson, Timothy and Gilbert, Daniel, The Paradoxical Consequences of Revenge (September 29, 2008). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1277905

Jen Kim is a PT intern

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