What does your brain look like when it’s plotting revenge?
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where you can create the word “revenge” with the letters provided.
According to 2004 study published in the US-based journal Science, a group of Swiss researchers set out to solve that mystery. They scanned the brains of people who had been wronged during an economic exchange game – the participants had trusted their partners to split a sum of money with them, but later discovered that their partners had decided to keep the loot for themselves.
The researchers told the participants they had an opportunity to punish their partners, and then watched the victims’ brain activity for 60 seconds, as they contemplated revenge. What they saw was a sudden flash of neural activity in the caudate nucleus – the area of the brain associated with processing rewards!
The study just went to show what literary characters, film villains and many people have been saying for a long time – revenge is sweet. The idea of a ‘thirst’ for vengeance is timeless. Homer’s epics had it, Shakespeare’s Hamlet was based on it, and we see it periodically even in news cycles, as crimes are committed in its name.
But does someone getting their ‘just desserts’ truly result in happiness and closure for the avenger? Science says acts of revenge have a bitter cost, of not just emotional energy, but physical energy, time and even lives. The moments preceding the act may feel incredibly savoury, but what happens right after?
The idea that revenge provides people emotional catharsis is still held in popular culture – as if vengeance somehow expels the awful bitter feeling, one has been carrying around. But in a 2002 study published in the US-based journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, scientists found that people had higher levels of aggression when they (supposedly) vented their anger, as compared to those who did nothing at all.
One reason for this, was discovered in a 2008 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Researchers conducted an experiment where the group had ‘punishers’ who exacted their revenge and ‘non-punishers’ who chose to do nothing. At the end of the experiment, punishers reportedly felt worse than non-punishers, despite getting the chance to take their revenge. The researchers found it was because the punishers ruminated on their deed – instead of feeling better and gaining closure, they felt worse for prolonging the unpleasant encounter.
Revenge may be sweet, fleetingly, but perhaps English statesman Francis Bacon had it right when he famously said: “A man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well.”