Revenge really is sweet, studies show

A few years ago, I hired a man to sand the logs of my house. I asked for a list of references and I called them all.

When he sanded the logs, he accidentally sandblasted my picture windows as well, so my picture windows were now full of small holes.

I decided to take revenge. I told him I would call everyone in his list of references and tell him about my experience. They would think twice before recommending him again, I figured.

He paid for the scarred windows.

But what if my tactic hadn’t worked and I’d had to call all those references? I wouldn’t have gained anything and I would have spent a lot of valuable time making all these calls.

What would I have gained? Revenge.

People and even animals naturally want to take revenge for mistreatment, psychologists are finding out. They enjoy revenge so much that they will take a loss for it, the Swiss researcher Ernst Fehr found.

Here’s how the experiment works. They give two participants $10 each and tell them the game rules. You get the first move. If you give your $10 to the other player, the researcher will quadruple your gift and the other player gets $50.

Then the other player gets a choice. He can keep all of the winnings. He can also share the winnings, giving you money back. Twenty-five dollars, an even split, would be fair, in my opinion.

If the other player hogged the $50 for himself, you could take revenge. You could take some money from your own pocket and give it to the researcher to take away money from the greedy hog. Most people took revenge and punished the hog severely.

While they were making the decision whether or not to take revenge, their brains were scanned by positive emission tomography (PET) to see which parts of their brains were active.

The revenge-taking players enjoyed brain activity in their pleasure centers, and those who punished the greedy players the most got the most pleasure.

“Revenge is sweet,” the maxim goes, and PET shows this is literally true.

Even animals take revenge, a German team of researchers found. They put one chimpanzee in a cage with a rope to a table filled with fabulous food. When the chimpanzee reached out and pulled in the table, he got a gourmet dinner.

If he pulled the rope instead, the table collapsed and all the food fell on the ground outside his cage.

Then the researchers put a second chimpanzee in the cage next to him. When one of them pulled the table so they could share the food, all was fine.

But when one of the chimpanzees pulled the table only over to himself, the other, outraged chimpanzee pulled the rope and dumped all the food on the ground outside his cage.

In other words, the chimp would rather neither one get the food than the other chimp get it all.

Many animal studies show this pattern and female animals are most likely to take revenge, for reasons not understood.

When a society can trust most of its members to play fair, it has tremendous advantages over non-trusting societies. Think of all the times people hand their credit cards to salespeople or order on the Internet with confidence that the charge will be correct and the item will arrive.

We take pleasure in taking revenge when we have been cheated. That’s why so many of us enjoy our revenge fantasies even when we know we won’t act them out.

How do we cut the cycle of revenge?

A sincere apology may be all that is necessary. Doctors who make a mistake and apologize, rather than covering it up, are sued far less often than other doctors, found researchers at the University of Washington Medical School.

The guy who ruined my windows while sandblasting my logs did apologize and pay to replace the windows. Justice had been done, so I didn’t seek revenge. Maybe the primitive pleasure in revenge underlies the desire for justice.

Judith Kleinfeld is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

By Judith Kleinfeld