If you lose a big fight, it will worry you all of your life. It will plague you - until you get your revenge.

                                                        - Muhammad Ali

Now, I'm not advocating for revenge. I believe that "an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind," and any gratification from revenge is likely to be short-lived. If you've been raised to think of revenge as being generally immoral, feelings of guilt may off-set any benefits of revenge. However, if you don't have any compunctions against revenge, or even if you do, a recent set of studies by Chester and DeWall (2017) in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology sheds some light on how revenge works emotionally and psychologically. Of course, there are - thankfully - other ways than revenge to restore one's emotional equilibrium after being hurt, such as working through the issue with the injuring party, compassion and forgiveness, seeing justice and reparation, punishment even, but the basic instinct to seek revenge, to become sadistic, to bully, is so strong and such a potent source of destruction in our world, it makes sense to better understand what is happening. It's not so clear intuititively how negative action like retaliatory aggression can lead to a positive emotional outcome.

The researchers in this study sought to understand how social rejection can lead to retaliatory aggression. What motivates revenge behavior when we feel hurt, rejected or criticized? When someone experiences negative emotions, why does this lead to aggressive behavior? There is a great deal of violence, from intimate partner violence and stalking, to violent confrontation between one-time friends, to mass casualty events. Of course violence may come from multiple factors, but clarifying the connection between the common experience of rejection and the retaliatory aggression which may often follow is an important step in understanding how to interrupt the cycle of injury and retaliation.

Basically, researchers found that when people feel hurt - socially rejected, insulted, humiliated, angry - we look for ways to restore our feelings to a more positive state. One common way for us to do that is to retaliate, to seek revenge and punish the offending party. They describe the following sequence: when we feel emotional injury, it causes negative emotions. When we feel negative emotions, we look for a way to restore a positive emotional state. One way to restore a positive emotional state is to strike out against the injuring party. When it is possible to do so, most experimental subjects are motivated to seek revenge, and when offered the opportunity, will do so. When their emotional state is assess after getting revenge, it is on par with the emotional state of someone who hadn't experienced emotional injury in the first place. 

To spell it out, in the study, researchers set up 6 different experiments to establish a chain of steps linking social rejection with retaliatory aggression. In the first two experiments, researcher established that people who experience greater rejection show greater motivation to repair their negative mood using aggression as a tool, and furthermore showed that subjects who had been excluded from playing an internet based game who felt greater rejection were more likely to be motivated to use aggression with the expectation that it would make them feel better by providing a degree of sadistic pleasure. 

In the second two experiments, researchers showed that if they blocked the expectation that getting even would make them feel better, then the motivation to retaliate was decreased. Taken together, the first two sets of experiments persuasively demonstrate that the expectation of feeling better is a strong motivator for revenge because when it is present, people have a significantly greater desire to get even, and when the expectation is absent that revenge will restore mood, people do not have as strong an urge to get even.

Finally, in the last two experiments, researchers showed that people who have experienced greater social rejection on average actually do behavior with greater aggression, exacting revenge and taking punishment for perceived injuries, and finding that their mood is improved for having done so. How did the researchers show this? In the first experiment, participants wrote a short essay which was supposedly exchanged via the internet with a partner's essay. However, there wasn't really a partner, and the essay was pre-written for purposes of the experiment. The subjects then received a random evaluation ranging from very positive to very negative, representing either social acceptance or social rejection. Then they completed a scale showing their emotional state (positive vs. negative), and were then offered an opportunity to say how many pins they wanted to stab into an imaginary voodoo doll which represented the person evaluating their essay, or in other trials how long and how loud they wanted a punishing noise to be.

By doing so, experimenters correlated how negative the evaluation was with how badly the person felt, and with how aggressively subjects behaved against the imaginary injuring party . The second experiment to measure actual aggressive behavior was similar, but used a larger group playing a game that subjects could be excluded from by other players, creating the feeling of social rejection.

In both experiments, researchers found that when negative affect (emotion) was high, subjects had a greater tendency to use retaliatory aggression to improve their mood, and that after they used aggression their mood was statistically the same as those who had not felt rejected and become angry in the first place. In other words, on average, taking revenge did in fact repair damaged mood among those who felt hurt.

So, at least for a single step of feeling injured, revenge is indeed sweet - in the sense that it restores our pre-injury emotional state.  But the negative action of the revenge by the same mechanism would likely cause injury to the original injuring party, and the other would then feel motivated to use retaliation to restore their emotional state, leading to an infinite regression of retaliatory aggression. Sadly this is exactly what we see so often in everyday life. This happens with children all the time, among friends who have a falling out and end up hurting each other, to romantic relationships which end up on the rocks, to family feuds which lead to decades of fighting and estrangement, to emotionally injured people who commit acts of terrible violence, to warring ethnic groups and nation-states which end up locked in cycles of decades of violence.

Is this motivation to use retaliatory aggression an evolutionary glitch? It appeals on a basic level, and seems to be "human nature". The immediate impulse is when slighted to seek revenge. It might make sense in some situations where short-term gains lead to an advantage, but it doesn't make sense when we are interdependent upon one another as we are in the modern world. We try to teach ourselves to restore our emotional equilibrium via other means, learning to reflect rather than act impulsively, and consider our options.

We can use conflict resolution approaches, third party moderators to help if need be, compassion and forgiveness-based approaches, religious models or otherwise, justice and reparation seeking, and so on. These all require more work than simply retaliating, but lead to better long-term outcomes. In order to use any of these preferred approaches, we have to tolerate feelings of injury for longer than necessary. Learning to hold onto these feelings without acting immediately takes practice.

Twitter: @GrantHBrennerMD

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Combating the sting of rejection with the pleasure of revenge: A new look at how emotion shapes aggression. Chester, David S.; DeWall, C. Nathan Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 112(3), Mar 2017, 413-430.