How plotting to get your own back could leave a bitter taste in your mouth
Your best friend has run off with your partner — you’re upset, hurt and furious. Your colleague threw you under the bus at work — you’re seething. It might feel good to imagine how you would make them pay by exacting revenge, but some studies show that revenge is far from good for us.
An experiment conducted by psychologists at Colgate University, in New York, found that although people seek revenge in the hope of feeling better, the reverse is found to be true. Some participants in the study who were ‘wronged’ were given the chance for revenge and others were not.
The study found that those who took revenge actually felt worse, not better, than the participants who didn’t take revenge. The psychologist leading the study explained that the revenge actually made the psychological wounds stay open longer, making the person feel worse.
So why do we seek revenge in the first place?
Professor Ann Macaskill, chartered psychologist and Professor of Health Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, says that revenge is something seen more in some cultures than others.
She explains: ‘Some have cultural ideas about honour and avenging honour, but whatever the culture, most people do believe in a sense of “natural justice” — if you are wronged, the person who wronged you deserves punishment. Although we might talk about seeking revenge, most people will be more passively aggressive when wronged, so they might gossip about the person who wronged them or cut them out of social gatherings and so on. Actively seeking revenge is much rarer.’
Ann says that although a wronged person might fantasise about getting revenge, and feeling better afterwards when a sense of balance is restored, that often isn’t the case.
‘People often feel guilty about taking revenge,’ she says. ‘There is lots in our culture about not seeking revenge, such as “turning the other cheek”. The idea of karma — what goes around comes around, which comes from Buddhism — has been adopted in our own culture so we believe that acting badly can have repercussions on ourselves.’
She adds that most people, even if they long for revenge, wouldn’t feel good on acting upon it, for the simple reason that we all like to be liked.
She says: ‘We’re social animals. We like people to like us and deep down we like to like ourselves. So even when we are wronged, if we do hateful things in retaliation, there’s a part of us that will feel guilty — and that takes any pleasure away from revenge.’
Edited by Julie Cook
‘But revenge made me feel great!’
I’d been with my boyfriend Ian for three years when I discovered addresses for massage parlours on his computer browsing history. I confronted him and he denied it. But months later I found phone numbers for the parlours on his phone.
I thought: He’s visiting prostitutes…
I was devastated, we had a row and split up. Afterwards I went from hurt, to disbelief, to feeling furious.
I spoke to my friend Laura and she said: ‘You know what would make you feel better?’
She paused before adding: ‘Revenge.’
I thought about it. Ian was really house-proud so Laura and I came up with the best revenge ever — for him to think something was rotting in his pristine house.
A month later I went back to collect some things while Ian was out. Laura arrived and we set about my revenge — sewing raw prawns into Ian’s curtains. As we went about our task, we fell about in giggles. Suddenly I wasn’t hurt any more — I was elated!
A few days later I met up with a mutual friend and told him what I’d done. He told me Ian had been hunting high and low for whatever was rotting. He’d even bought a new carpet, but still hadn’t found the prawns.
I didn’t feel guilty. Ian had betrayed me and now I’d got him back. I found the ‘revenge’ very cathartic and, because it was a pretty harmless thing to do, I think he got off lightly.
I’m now happily in a relationship and with two children, and would never behave like that again. But I think harmless revenge is OK if it makes you feel better — it helped me at the time.
From Sally Windsor, 36, of Crawley, W Sussex
Ian’s name’s been changed.
Tips to avoid seeking revenge…
1 Take a breath Don’t act on the spur of the moment. Calm down, think it through. Often anger subsides as time passes.
2 Allow yourself to feel empathy The feeling of empathy often kicks in when anger goes. Imagine how you’d feel if someone sought revenge on you.
3 Will it change the situation? If you seek revenge, will it change things? Even if you do something in return, the situation won’t change and you’ll probably be left feeling guilty.
4 If you can’t forgive, try to forget While you’re planning your revenge, you’re wasting your energy and not moving on with your own life. Don’t waste valuable energy on plotting.
5 Ignore glamorised accounts of revenge Social media and TV shows often present revenge in a glamorous light. Seeking revenge in reality will not be as glamorous, and will probably make you feel a lot worse.