Why Revenge Feels Sweet

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

How many of us dream of getting back at the office bully, the dishonest friend, or the sadistic professor?  A client discovered that his wife was having an affair with her boss.  My client reported that he sneaked into the office and wiped out the boss’s computer hard drive in a desperate act of revenge.  When we feel harmed, when someone violates a social norm, most of us feel motivated to punish that individual.  This motivation to punish seems to reside in a part of the brain called the dorsal striatum.  Located towards the top of the brain behind the eyes and in front of the ears, the dorsal striatum becomes active when we anticipate pleasure like eating a good meal.  This brain region also plays an important role in addiction and obesity, as it holds dopamine receptors associated with intense pleasure.

The modern American workplace provides fertile ground for frequent acts of revenge.  Rude to a fast food worker?  Better check your hamburger before you bite.  Insult your colleague in a meeting?  Count on some negative comments about you from that department.  In the book, Getting Even:  The Truth About Workplace Revenge—And How to Stop It, authors Tripp and Bies found that non-violent acts of revenge are common in the workplace.  If workers respond to perceived slights, insults or emotional injuries with some form of retaliation, it’s not surprising that conflicts in the workplace are so common. Tripp and Bies write that middle managers spend 25 percent of their time dealing with workplace conflict.  CEO’s spend an average of 26 percent of their time managing conflict.

While fantasies about getting even can feel seductively sweet, research shows that we end up feeling worse if we act on that fantasy.  Social psychologist, Kevin Carlsmith, Ph.D. (and others) performed a study that allowed participants to punish someone who cheated them in an experiment.  Participants allowed to punish the cheater felt worse than those who did not punish the cheater.  Apparently when we take the path of revenge, we continue to ruminate on our injury, and that makes us feel unhappy.  Those people who weren’t given the opportunity to retaliate felt happier.  They moved on from the slight and let it go faster.

Some people have a harder time letting go of anger and revenge.  Social psychologist Ian McKee of Australia found that the most vengeful types of people possess two social attitudes;  right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance.  “People who are more vengeful tend to be those wh0 are motivated by power, by authority and by the desire for status” says Dr. McKee.  “They don’t want to lose face.”  The most common complaint in the bitter families I work with is “lack of respect.”  Hostility, revenge, retaliation are often employed to establish dominance, obedience, respect.  Saving face becomes more important than fostering love, trust, joy, happiness, connection and community.

Brad Bushman of Iowa State University published a study in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that showed that the more we let out our anger on a punching bag, or on a person, the more angry we remain.  If you really want to feel better after someone harms you it’s best to stop focusing on the injury and do something positive for yourself.  One client found that she felt significantly better when she stopped revenge fantasies and passive-aggressive behavior toward her bully boss.  Instead, whenever she experienced a difficult day at work, she imagined making a delicious dinner and enjoying it with her loving husband.  She looked up recipes online, and focused on stimulating her brain’s pleasure centers.  Eventually, whenever  her boss “went on a rampage,” she smiled, licked her lips and thought, “we’re going to eat good tonight.”

We can improve our mood and recover from angry, vengeful feelings, by finding healthy ways to make our own life happier.  The next time you want to mentally rehearse one hundred ways to tell off your nasty co-worker, instead imagine:

  • Buying  yourself a present.  As long as it’s in your budget, if you buy yourself something enjoyable you can distract yourself from ruminating on your anger.
  • Enjoying a hobby.  Music, art, crafts, sewing, are a few hobbies that allow for self-expression, creativity and fun.  It’s hard to stay mad when you’re having fun.
  • Socializing. Plan a fun picnic with friends.  Organize a game night.  Go to a movie with your spouse.  Social activities distract us from the frustrating routines of everyday life and provide us with support.
  • Planning a trip.  Plan a trip abroad or play tourist in your own town.  Getting away from the familiar gives us perspective on our lives and helps us see things in a new way.
  • Self Improvement. Success is the best revenge.”  When we do something to make our own life better, rather than trying to make the life of another worse, we can enjoy the sweeter taste of success.

While the desire for revenge resides in every human brain, we have the free will to choose a different response.  The response we choose can determine whether we feel better or worse.