Revenge really is sweet: study shows the mood-enhancing effect of retaliation

Posted on January 6, 2017

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When we feel ostracised, we are more likely to behave aggressively. Previous research suggests that vengeance on those who think have wronged us can be driven by a sense of justice, and may activate neural reward centres. Being ostracised can also lead to generalised aggression, even lashing out at unrelated people, so there seems to be more going on.

In new research in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, David Chester and C. Nathan DeWall tested the idea that social rejection, by making us feel wounded and unwanted, triggers a need to repair our mood by whatever means available, including through the satisfaction of causing harm to those who have made us suffer. Aggression has been found to be a viable method for mood repair.

156 participants were asked to write an essay on a person topic, then to swap their essays with other participants to receive feedback on what they’d written. One group of participants will received nasty feedback (composed by the researchers): “one of the worst essays I have EVER read”. Chester and DeWall had the participants’ mood measured before and after they were given a chance to express a symbolic form of aggression: sticking pins in a virtual voodoo doll imagined as the person who had given them mean feedback. Such (un)sympathetic magic did indeed repair mood for the rejected participants, to the point where their mood was indistinguishable from participants who’d received nice feedback.

Researchers also conducted another study to investigate motives behind mood boosting. 154 participants were invited to the lab and were given a pill each, informing them that the pill would enhance their thinking for the upcoming tests. Some of them were further told that the pill had a peculiar side-effect, once it kicked in, their mood would become fixed and unchanging (such claims were a fiction, an inert placebo).

Participants then took part in a computer-based game where they and two other players passed a ball back and forth. Those in the “rejection condition” experienced a cold shoulder from their two playmates (actually pre-programmed computer responses), receiving only three of the 30 passes, compared to an equal share of passes in the “accepted condition”.

Participants were asked to rate how rejected they felt after the game, then they were given chance to take revenge in the second round of game against one of their previous playmates.

The game was a simple ‘first to the buzzer’ reaction race, but each round the slower player was always punished by a blast of noise through their headphones. When participants were faster, they could adjust the intensity of the noise suffered by their opponent, up to 105 decibels: the volume of a jack hammer or a helicopter hovering at 100 feet.

In most cases, participants who’d suffered earlier rejection chose to inflict louder sound blasts on their opponent (who’d rejected them earlier). However, this does not apply to participants who’d earlier been told about the pill’s side-effect in fixing their mood. During the break between games, participants were alerted that the drug was by now fully active and their mood would stay as it was for an hour. Participants then restricted their sound blasts to the lower levels administered by participants who hadn’t suffered earlier rejection. Due to the pill, they presumably believed they had no prospect of mood improvement, so there was no point in lashing out.

Results suggest that even seemingly pointless aggression can have a purpose and deliver a desired outcome. Although this research focused on rejection-inspired aggression, it could explain other situations where aggression appears to us to be a plausible route to alleviating our bad mood. The relief that anger provides is a wretched consolation, and it’s a habit worth kicking.

To read the full article, please click on link below.

Source material from British Psychological Society

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