Jessica Yadegaran, McClatchy Newspapers, Published December 07 2011
Humans hard-wired to crave revenge
Decades ago, Dorfler wanted to get even with her sister’s mean-spirited boyfriend. He teased her and made fun of her looks. According to Dorfler, no one in the family liked him, so she knew it wouldn’t be long before her sister dumped him. Until then, Dorfler decided to have a little fun.
One day, she purchased a bag of Pixy Stix, the powdered candy packaged in long paper straws. She enjoyed two sticks, refilled the empty tubes with salt, and left them on the living room table, knowing the greedy boyfriend would help himself. Sure enough, later that night, Dorfler heard his loud “ugh.”
“He got a mouth full of salt, and I got a laugh,” recalls Dorfler, now 48 and living in Oakley, Calif. “I never would’ve done anything to hurt the guy, but I wanted to teach him a lesson.”
Why does it feel so good to punish the slave-driving boss or back-stabbing friend? Even watching someone else get even, like protagonist Emily Thorne on ABC’s popular drama “Revenge,” tastes sweet. The law handles hefty injustices such as murder. Yet we thirst for retribution even when the violation is benign. Scientists say the impulse to get even is wired in the genes, but that following through with your machinations doesn’t make you feel any better than fantasizing about them. So why do some still retaliate?
“Because the thoughts create a visceral response,” explains Robert Bies, an organizational behavior expert at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. “Anytime you have a visceral feeling, whether you’re hot or hungry, you have to dissipate it.” Of course, not everyone chooses revenge. Some confront the wrongdoer or go to therapy.
A 2004 University of Zurich study confirmed that thinking about revenge stimulates the brain’s dorsal stratum, the region that is activated when anticipating pleasurable acts, such as eating. For this reason, human behavior researchers believe vengeful thoughts can sometimes prevent bad behavior.
“Dreams do that all the time,” says Irwin Rosen, a retired Kansas psychoanalyst who devoted a decade to researching revenge. “When revenge dominates our psyche, it is not healthy. But if you create boundaries as to what kinds of injustices you’re willing to tolerate, it can be a good thing.”
Revenge is not evil or immoral, Rosen explains. But, he says, there are gradations. “You should always ask yourself where punishment, accountability, restitution and atonement shade into revenge,” he says. In other words, don’t do what Emily Thorne does. “Revenge’s” Thorne cooks up diabolical plans each week for the people she believes wronged her dad.
“She is crossing the line, but I understand why she’s doing it,” Bies says. “It becomes a sort of addictive response or hedonic impulse. The movie ‘Nine to Five’ was all about revenge, but it gave us pleasure because we wanted something to happen to the bad boss.”
Turns out the workplace is a breeding ground for revenge because rules, procedures and codes of honor are constantly violated, says Bies, who co-wrote “Getting Even: The Truth About Workplace Revenge – And How to Stop It.”
“What really motivates people is when they feel a sense of injustice and their managers or employers won’t rectify it,” he says.
In 1,000 interviews, Bies has heard about abusive bosses, “free riders” who take the credit for others’ work and publicly criticized workers who want payback because they feel they’ve lost face.
Although everyone wanted revenge, one-third of them did nothing, Bies says. The two-thirds who acted did so indirectly, with bad-mouthing or the silent treatment. Bies says men are more likely to use confrontation. Women are more likely to use passive-aggressive means such as bad-mouthing.
Want to get even with a back-stabbing friend or mean-spirited co-worker? Follow these rules, courtesy of Chris Gallagher of www.revengelady.com:
- The punishment should match the crime. A pie in the face might be a bit much for a date who was late.
- Keep it legal. Never take the law into your own hands.
- Do something fun. Crank calls and practical jokes never get old.
- Move on. If you’ve been obsessing about the injustice for more than a year, it’s time to stop.