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

In a related vein, Carlsmith, Gilbert and Wilson (2008) investigated whether people can accurately forecast their affective reactions to revenge. They found that participants predict that taking revenge makes them feel better, but that this affective forecasting does not reflect reality: Participants felt worse after they enacted revenge compared to participants who did not take revenge. Moreover, Carlsmith and colleagues showed that people felt even worse when they took revenge themselves and not when they observed someone else taking revenge. To summarize, people think that they feel better after taking revenge, but in reality they do not feel better, they feel even worse (see also Denzler, Häfner, & Förster, 2010). This might point to a dark side of vengeance. One does hope that taking revenge makes you feel better, but at the end, you are worse off after harming someone else.

Thus, Ameneh might think that she feels better after harming Majid, but at the end, she might not do so. Most likely she might feel even worse afterward.

Let’s turn to the last and probably most important component of vengeance – behavior. Does acting aggressively have an impact on subsequent aggression? According to the above-mentioned instinct model by Lorenz (1974) any aggressive act empties aggressive energy and hence subsequent aggression is less likely to occur in the near future. Quite contrary, the GAM (Anderson & Bushman, 2002) predicts that acting aggressively increases aggression through various routes. One of them is the heightened accessibility of aggressive thoughts. As mentioned above, accessible thoughts are one determinant of behavior. Aggressive acts activate thoughts related to aggression, which in turn increases the likelihood for future aggression. However, we could show that aggression that fulfills a goal does not only lead to fewer aggressive thoughts (Denzler et al., 2009 and Gollwitzer & Denzler, 2009), but also to less aggressive behavior (Denzler et al., 2009). Most notably, alternative non-aggressive means of goal-fulfillment reduced aggressive behavior even more than aggressive means of goal-fulfillment. This finding points to a dissociation within the results obtained for the accessibility of thoughts. In our studies, we found that aggressive goal-fulfillment reduced aggressive thoughts more than non-aggressive goal-fulfillment. For behavior, we found the reversed pattern: Participants who fulfilled their goals with non-aggressive means showed less aggressive behavior than participants who fulfilled their goal with aggressive means. However, no goal-fulfillment led to more aggressive behavior than (aggressive and non-aggressive) goal-fulfillment. This might be regarded as another bright side of taking revenge: Under specific circumstances it might decrease aggressive behavior in future.

What follows from this last part of the analysis for the example of Ameneh? If blinding Majid fulfills her goal, she might behave less aggressive in future. If not, however, this act might increase aggression in future. The tricky question now is: Is the goal fulfilled with blinding Majid? He will be narcotized during this process and will therefore feel much less pain than Ameneh did. His face will also not be disfigured. Is the goal then fulfilled?

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