The impact of revenge

Ella Rhodes reports on reaction to a study covered on our Research Digest blog.

A recent post that featured on our Research Digest blog on the potential mood-enhancing effects of revenge stirred up international media interest. We spoke to one of the paper’s authors, Dr David Chester (Virginia Commonwealth University; pictured) about his work and its impact.

Chester and Dr C. Nathan DeWall’s work, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, saw 156 participants receiving fake negative or positive feedback on essays they had written; following this, participants in the negative group could carry out revenge using a voodoo doll to symbolise the negative reviewer. Afterwards participants’ mood was fully recovered and comparable to that in the positive group.

In further work to look into motives for revenge, subjects were given a placebo pill and told it would enhance their thinking in the upcoming tests. Some of those were told that the pill, once it kicked in, would cause their mood to become fixed and unchanging. Following this, all subjects took part in a computer game where they, and two computerised players, passed a ball between them. Some of these were in a ‘rejection’ condition where the other players wouldn’t pass the ball to them, in the 'accepted’ condition participants had the ball an equal amount of time.

Later, participants had the chance to take revenge against one of their previous playmates, in a ‘first to the buzzer’ reaction game. In each round of the game the losing player was punished with a loud noise blasted in their headphones. The participants, if they won, could choose the volume of this noise up to 105 decibels (the same level as a jackhammer).

Participants who experienced earlier rejection inflicted louder sounds on their opponents most of the time. But for those who were told the pill would fix their mood this wasn’t the case. These 'fixed-mood' participants still felt the same levels of rejection as other rejected participants, but they perhaps believed they had no chance of improving their mood via revenge.

So, maybe even seemingly pointless aggression can have a purpose, and could potentially explain other contexts where aggression may be seen as an avenue to improving mood. Chester told us he wanted to understand why people hurt each other with an aim to eventually design better tools to prevent it. Revenge, he added, is the most common form of aggressive behaviour and a massive cause of harm to humankind.

And the research obviously struck a chord: after its appearance on the Research Digest the piece was summarised by New York Magazine and the Daily Mail. These articles were subsequently linked to by dozens of websites and Vice also reached out to him for an interview. He said the Digest appearance had a huge impact on the visibility of his and DeWalls’ findings.

Chester said: ‘People want to understand the reasons behind their own behaviours and the behaviours of others. Our research shed light onto why people engage in some of the most cruel and costly acts in the human behavioural repertoire. I hope that armed with this information, people will be better equipped to prevent their own revengeful acts and help others who might be at risk.’  

He also had advice for those wanting to improve the impact of their own work: ‘Share your work early and openly. Once a paper is accepted, tweet and share your findings on social media. Share your manuscript freely with those around you and make yourself available to media outlets that want to cover your research. The more you give, the more coverage you will get, increasing the impact of your work.’

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