In the movie Waiting to Exhale, Angela Bassett brings us one of the most iconic scenes of the 1990s when her character boldly sets her cheating husband's car on fire and walks away, a woman vindicated. Now, thanks to new research, we are closer to understanding why revenge tastes so sweet.
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, sometimes people who feel ostracized are drawn to retaliate because they're subconsciously trying to return to a state of emotional balance—not necessarily because they want to hurt someone. Researchers conducted six experiments involving more than 1,700 participants to see how emotion plays a role in the relationship between social rejection and aggression. Their findings, which came out late last year, assert that, "rejected people act aggressively due to a motivation to repair their damaged mood by harnessing revenge's pleasant properties."
In one experiment, participants played a virtual ball toss game online, in which some were conditioned to feel rejected when the ball wasn't passed their way often. After the game ended, researchers assessed how rejected participants felt, and then had them participate in a digital "Voodoo Doll Task." Here, participants were told their doll represented one of their virtual ball toss game partners and had to select how many pins to stick into the figure. Finally, researchers assessed individuals' tendency to act out aggressively in an effort to improve mood.
"Rejection increased aggression, and mood repair via aggression motives was associated with greater aggression," the study's authors write. "We observed a significant interaction between rejection and mood repair motives. ... These findings offer initial evidence that rejection-related aggression occurs primarily among people who expect such aggression to improve their moods."
In another experiment, participants penned an essay about a time in which they were angry. They were then told they would exchange their writing with an online partner to receive feedback. After critiquing a fictitious essay, participants received their own scores, including either a positive response ("great essay!") or a negative one ("one of the worst essays that I have EVER read!"). Researchers then assessed how participants were feeling emotionally and had them complete the Voodoo Doll Task, this time with the doll representing their essay partner. The results concluded: "Aggression was successful at reducing participants' negative affect who had received negative feedback and increasing their positive affect, whereas no such effect occurred among participants who received positive feedback."
David Chester is a psychology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the researchers on the study. He says the data offered some surprises. In two of the experiments (including the one just mentioned), he and his team predicted revenge would actually help people feel somewhat better after rejection. "But what we found," he tells Broadly, "was that, after participants were given a chance at revenge, they were emotionally indistinguishable from their included and accepted counterparts. So, revenge had a much larger emotion-repairing effect than we expected."
"Aggression is a means to an end, that end being a return to a state of emotional balance and homeostasis," he continues. "It's not about the harm inflicted upon the target per se, but more about what that harm allows the individual to feel."
Although the findings seem gloomy, Chester says there's at least one positive takeaway. "If aggression is an emotion-regulation strategy, then you simply need to supplant it with another strategy. For individuals who find themselves motivated to enact revenge, they may only need to find another behavior that provides the mood repair that they need. Alternatives such as exercise and mindfulness exercises seem like promising avenues that we should test as effective replacements for revenge-seeking."