Tuesday, January 27, 2009

SciAm Mind - Getting Even vs. Getting Over It: Think Twice Before Enacting Your Revenge

Revenge seems to be much more pleasurable (and painless) in the abstract of anticipation than in the reality of infliction - i.e., revenge hurts the avenger more than one might anticipate in one's "affective forecast."

So says an article in Scientific American Mind.

Getting Even vs. Getting Over It: Think Twice Before Enacting Your Revenge

Punishing your enemy is bad for your mental health (but vengeful daydreams are okay)

By Jesse Bering

Jesse Bering

Jesse Bering

I would not consider myself to be particularly spiteful or vindictive. I suffer fools rather lightly, in fact. And I can even see myself, in the context of some simpleminded conversation, giving that old line about “not wishing it upon even my worst enemy.” Yet, I’m also all too human, and there are a handful of people in this world who have angered me such that the thought of transferring my most feverish emotional and physical pains to them makes me grin from ear to ear.

When someone is jarringly rude, obnoxious, or unfair to me or to people I care about, I take a hidden pleasure in daydreams laden with retaliatory themes that, if committed to the screen, would make Quentin Tarantino cringe and look away. In fact, punitive thoughts such as these apparently “feel good” in a neurobiologically meaningful way. For example, in a 2004 study published in Science by University of Zurich researcher Dominique de Quervain and his colleagues, people asked to think about exacting revenge on an enemy experienced measurable pleasure: their dorsal striatum (the pleasure center of the brain) lit up in a PET scan while doing so.

But thinking about getting even is one thing; going ahead and actually doing it is a different psychological story. Recent findings by Colgate University psychologist Kevin Carlsmith and his co-authors, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia and Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University, reveal that actually inflicting revenge on someone who has wronged us leaves us feeling anything but pleasure.

In a series of studies published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, these investigators explored the emotional costs of imposing retaliatory harm on a social transgressor. Undergraduate students played a computer game in which they were “cheated” by another player (actually, a research assistant) and then some were later given the opportunity to punish this rule breaker.

What did this person do that was so bad? Well, in this particular study, she (it was always a female cheater to standardize the procedure) led the other players to believe she was going to cooperate with them on a standard “prisoner’s dilemma” economic game. Participants were given $1.00 and were told that, on any given trial, they could donate a portion of this money to a collective kitty that would be distributed evenly, along with a 40 percent dividend, after each round of play. Thus, “the optimal group outcome was achieved when each individual cooperated, but each individual maximized his or her personal outcome by defecting.” The fictitious cheater was outrageously duplicitous, encouraging everyone else to give an equal amount on each trial so that they’d all walk away with an equitably fair share. At first she kept up with her end of the bargain. But then—that hussy—she defected. That is to say, this player started selfishly keeping her money, thus taking away the most loot overall.

If you were a naïve participant in one of these studies, the researchers would have randomly assigned you to one of several possible conditions. For example, as a “punisher,” you would have been given the opportunity to levy a punitive fine against the cheater at the end of the game, thus “teaching her a lesson.” Or, as a “witness,” you would simply observe as one of the other players imposed the fine. Alternatively, you could have found yourself in the control condition in which the cheater was never punished. The most important finding was that, contrary to what the non-punishing participants thought the punishers would feel (basically, that levying the fine against her would provide an unrivaled degree of pleasure and satisfyingly resolve the matter), the punishers in fact reported feeling the worst out of the bunch once they’d gotten even. That is to say, the non-punishers’ “affective forecasts” for the positive afterglow of retaliation were way off the mark. Furthermore, the punishers were still thinking about the cheater ten minutes later whereas those from the other conditions had moved on from this otherwise trivial social betrayal.

The authors summarize their findings this way: “[People] underestimate the extent to which punishment will make them ruminate about the [transgressor], and they fail to realize that this is especially true if they instigate the punishment, as opposed to seeing someone else do it.” The reason for this paradoxical finding, the authors argue, is that rumination prolongs the negative emotions that punishers are trying to escape in the first place—the act of having punished someone keeps us thinking about them.

Carlsmith and his coauthors stop short of explaining exactly why punishment makes us continue reflecting on this person we loathe, but to me it’s fairly obvious. You may think you’ve restored justice by inflicting the punishment. But from the other person’s perspective, you’ve gone overboard and now it’s their turn to punish you. So, guess what? Now you’ve made a real enemy and have to be vigilant about them returning the retaliatory favor. Evolutionary scholars reason that punishment is “costly” in this sense because it can rapidly escalate, placing you and your family (and thus your genes) in harm’s way.

Of course, if you’re an anonymous punisher that threat becomes minimized. Just have a look at websites such as bitterwaitress (check out “The Shitty Tipper Database”) or RateMyProfessors.com, where underappreciated restaurant servers and disgruntled students can body slam the reputations of their antagonists while wearing the mask of an encrypted IP address. (Or for a really depressing glimpse into human nature unfiltered by fears of revenge, have a peak at some of the spirited adolescent comments left on the average YouTube video.)

In a study published last year in the journal Evolution & Human Behavior, my graduate student Jared Piazza and I used a similar economic game as the one previously described. We discovered that undergraduate students were unwilling to punish another player for being selfish whenever they thought this person could identify them by name or when clues were made available that would allow the punished to track their punisher down after the study (for example, the neighborhood where the participant lived or what he or she was majoring in at the university). In contrast, students who were explicitly told their identities would be kept hidden from the selfish players chose to levy significantly harsher monetary fines against them.

You may think scientists are above petty, vindictive behaviors (after all, many of us take pains to objectively study such retaliation). But trust me, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Psychological science, at least, is littered with interpersonal scandals that have absolutely nothing to do with data or theory.

That’s one of the reasons why the more conscientious peer-reviewed scientific journals implement a “double-blind” review procedure. To get an article accepted for publication, the manuscript must be vetted by other researchers in the area of study. In principle, this review keeps the caliber of research high, avoids the unnecessary duplication of studies and helps to ensure against fraudulent work. But imagine being asked to review the manuscript of a fellow researcher who last month insulted your theory in front of a large conference audience? Or one who’s PhD advisor was your own beloved advisor’s nemesis? Or what if the manuscript of your ex-fiancé’s new husband landed on your desk? (I needn’t add in this last hypothetical scenario that it was quite the messy breakup.)

If you wouldn’t be biased in such cases—even unconsciously—then you must be made of wires and metal. Not so very long ago, a particular evolutionary biologist was so gratuitously rude to me that the thought of getting back at him, in some way, triggered orgasmic quivers of my dorsal striatum. I’ve since trivialized the incident and my retributive pleasure center has gone cold on the matter. But honestly, if I had been asked by some journal editor to review this person’s manuscript the next day, I wouldn’t have trusted myself to do it fairly and I would have had to decline the invitation.

So for scientists, the trick is evaluating the quality of other researchers’ work independent of the fact that these people often have the social tact of a hamadryas baboon—and sometimes even the rear end to match. Fortunately, with a double-blind review, the identity of the author is kept from the reviewer, and the author is not told who the reviewer was either. It’s an imperfect system (oftentimes you can get a sense of the author’s writing style or the fact that they keep referring to their own past research gives it away), but given human nature—even the nature of those who study human nature—it’s often a necessary one.

As a final note, I’m very curious to get your thoughts on this column. If you disagree with anything I’ve written so far or the way I’ve gone about it, please be sure to include your full name along with your home address and place of employment. Otherwise, feel free to praise relentlessly and anonymously.

In this new column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen's University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Ever wonder why yawning is contagious, why we point with our index fingers instead of our thumbs or whether being breastfed as an infant influences your sexual preferences as an adult? Get a closer look at the latest data as “Bering in Mind” tackles these and other quirky questions about human nature. Sign up for the RSS feed and never miss an installment again.

From a Buddhist point of view, revenge would seem to be about attachment to a feeling of being wronged and the corresponding anger that arises to cover the real feeling, which is the hurt. We seek revenge to assuage the feeling of hurt. But as long as we are attached to avoiding that hurt, we will never be free. Seeking revenge keeps us stuck in that feedback loop, so we never are able to feel the original hurt and release it.

"Letting go" is the key, here, to being more free. To do so, we have to honestly see and feel our hurt in a given situation - otherwise, we are imprisoned by our unfelt and unreleased pain.

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