On the dark and bright sides to vengeance: Cognitive, behavioral and affective consequences of aggression

When is an aggressive goal fulfilled? Is it just enough to harm the initial aggressor or provocateur? Our research demonstrates that this is not sufficient. More specifically, the target of the retributive act must signalize that he understood that he was harmed because he did something wrong beforehand. Without this understanding, revenge does not reduce the accessibility of aggressive thoughts (Gollwitzer & Denzler, 2009). Is aggressive goal-fulfillment necessary? Many times, the aggressive act itself might fulfill other higher order goals, such as the restoration of justice or equity (cf., Donnerstein & Hatfield, 1982; Hammock, Rosen, Richardson, & Bernstein, 1989), or merely solving a conflict. If these goals are fulfilled, the aggressive goal is not needed anymore and the goal itself, and content associated with it, should subsequently be inhibited. We could show that a non-aggressive act of goal-fulfillment inhibits the accessibility of aggressive thought as well (Denzler et al., 2009). However, the inhibition of aggressive thoughts is stronger after aggressive goal-fulfillment compared to non-aggressive goal-fulfillment.

To summarize, aggressive thoughts are not inevitably increased through aggressive acts. Aggressive acts that fulfill a goal can decrease aggressive thoughts in memory – acts of aggression without goal-fulfillment, however, will increase aggressive thoughts.

Coming back to the example of Ameneh: She thinks about harming Majid, how to harm him and about how he will be blinded. These thoughts are highly active in her memory, especially because it is her goal to harm Majid. However, after she had fulfilled this goal one could expect that she thinks less about it – if Majid shows some insight and understanding that he was blinded because he blinded Ameneh beforehand. This might point to a dangerous pitfall: If Majid does not signal some kind of understanding for his punishment, Ameneh will nevertheless think of harming Majid. Let´s now turn to another important component: How would Ameneh feel after harming Majid?

As mentioned above, people belief in Catharsis (see Russel et al., 1995). One reason might be that physiological arousal caused through initial provocation is decreased by taking revenge. Indeed, in a review of studies on Catharsis, Geen and Quanty (1977) showed that physiological arousal is decreased after aggressing against the initial provocateur and if no revenge from him is expected. Aggressing against other targets, however, did not decrease arousal. These findings parallel the findings on the inhibition of aggressive constructs upon goal-fulfillment reported above.

Second, people might engage in aggressive acts to improve their moods. In this sense, acting aggressively may serve the goal to regulate one’s own emotion. In a series of experiments, Bushman, Baumeister and Phillips (2001) demonstrated that people do indeed vent their anger if they believe that this might make them feel better compared to people who do not belief in it. Is venting one’s anger by harming others a successful emotion regulation strategy? Do people indeed feel better after harming others? Bushman and colleagues (2001) showed that people who believe that venting one’s anger feel worse after aggressing compared to people who do not believe in it.

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