Your boyfriend just broke up with you and you’re thinking, “Wow, he left his favorite t-shirt over here at my place. He wouldn’t mind if I cleaned the toilet with it, would he?”

Revenge is sweet. Or is it? Psychology research on the study of revenge suggests the picture is a little more complicated than a feeling of satisfaction after we’ve taken out our revenge on another.

Researchers call revenge the psychology of retribution, and our feelings about revenge the “revenge paradox,” because when we take out revenge on another person, we often feel worse afterward when we thought we would feel better. Vaughan over at Mind Hacks has the commentary on an article that appeared in the APA’s Monitor this month:

One of the most interesting bits is where it covers a study finding that while we think revenge will make us feel better after an injustice, it seems to have the opposite effect and makes us feel more unhappy […]:

“In the feelings survey, the punishers reported feeling worse than the non-punishers, but predicted they would have felt even worse had they not been given the opportunity to punish. The non-punishers said they thought they would feel better if they’d had that opportunity for revenge—even though the survey identified them as the happier group.”

It’s not only that our feelings and happiness aren’t quite what we thought they’d be. No, it’s far worse. Not only are we bad at predicting how we’ll feel after taking our revenge, but we keep our anger alive through ruminating about the experience long afterward, according to the Monitor article:

[… D]espite conventional wisdom, people — at least those with Westernized notions of revenge — are bad at predicting their emotional states following revenge, Carlsmith says.

The reason revenge may stoke anger’s flames may lie in our ruminations, he says. When we don’t get revenge, we’re able to trivialize the event, he says. We tell ourselves that because we didn’t act on our vengeful feelings, it wasn’t a big deal, so it’s easier to forget it and move on. But when we do get revenge, we can no longer trivialize the situation. Instead, we think about it. A lot.

“Rather than providing closure, [taking our revenge] does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh,” he says.

So why do we even bother seeking out revenge if, in the end, it just keeps the issue alive in our minds, keeps us angry, and doesn’t really make us any happier in the long run? Researchers have some theories about that as well:

“Punishing others in this context—what they call ‘altruistic punishment’—is a way to keep societies working smoothly,” Carlsmith says. “You’re willing to sacrifice your well-being in order to punish someone who misbehaved.”

And to get people to punish altruistically, they have to be fooled into it. Hence, evolution might have wired our minds to think that revenge will make us feel good.

The other reason mentioned in the article is that, perhaps in some cultures, obtaining ordinary justice through the courts or what-not is not a viable option. So revenge is the only impulse still available and which can be readily and quickly applied.

All of which you should take into consideration next time you’re considering taking out your revenge on another person. Because what’s sweet to you in the moment right now may become bitter later on, as you continue to ruminate upon the original act that led to your taking revenge. Above all else, revenge is not likely to make you happier, either immediately or later on. Drop it, move on, and before you know it, thoughts of the original hurt (and your imagined revenge) are just two more distant memories in your life.

Hat tip to Mind Hacks: Revenge is sweet but corrosive

The APA Monitor article: Revenge and the people who seek it