Ideas that add up #69

[Prof]: Now, the first result that interested us was that people thought that revenge would make them feel better. When we asked them, they said: “Yes. If I could punish this guy, I’d really feel better.” But when we gave people that opportunity, most people took it, but in the end they felt worse. The act of revenge actually led to more negative feelings.

[Presenter]: So people think that revenge will make them feel better but it actually makes them feel worse. 

[Prof]: Perhaps people underestimate what revenge will do to our thinking about the whole event. What we found was that the opportunity to punish led to a focussing on the event. A negative rumination. A repetitive thinking about: “Ah, what did he do to me, and why?” Whereas those who couldn’t punish were the ones who were able to move on and say: “Ah, this wasn’t that important. Time to think about something else.”

[Presenter]: You feel the need to do something, I suppose. But why doesn’t revenge make you feel better?

[Prof]: I think the key is this rumination. That it focuses our attention on it, makes us keep thinking about it. Um…it makes us analyse it repetitively, Whereas if we don’t have that opportunity we’re much more apt to deal with it by minimizing it, or thinking that: “well, life goes on. It’s time to think about something else.”

…in the end I think the best revenge is to minimize the event. To brush the person off as if he’s a fly on our shoulder, and just try to find a way to minimize it.

Tim Wilson, Prof of Psychology at the University of Virginia talking about his study into revenge, on BBC Radio 4’s PM show, March 8th, 2013

The item was broadcast in the context of this week’s development in the news story about the adulterous coalition cabinet minister and his hell-hath-no-fury wife, high-flyers the pair of them, both in line for jail sentences now that she has spilled the beans on an ancient, jointly committed misdeed. Revenge has backfired for her in an obvious way, but as the research study above appears to demonstrate, would-be revengers also have to be ready for a more insidious effect of their actions.

Puts one in mind of those wise, Christian people who, almost incredibly, forgive the killers of their loved ones — saying that to do otherwise would be to destroy themselves with bitterness.

Calls to mind also this: “Living well is the best revenge.” Oh yes.

And obliquely links to this, which I happened to read on the same day, part of a superbly common-sense dissection of “Me Generation” psychobabble:

Even in the West there is emerging evidence that letting it all out isn’t always necessarily the best strategy. After the tragic destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, University of Buffalo researchers found that witnesses who ignored a request to record their feelings actually fared better psychologically and physically than those who agreed to write their emotions down. And while we are routinely taught that “letting your anger out” is good for us, reviewing 40 years of evidence led Professor Jeffrey Lohr, a leading clinical psychologist from the University of Arkansas, to conclude that the expression of anger actually intensifies feelings of aggression.

Stephen Briers, author of Psychobabble: Exploding the Myths of the Self-Help Generation, writing in New Humanist, March/April 2013

And that, folks…is today’s Self-Help Sunday!

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