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    Vengeance Isn’t Sweet

    By Tom Moon, MFT

    Mike spent years building a business with his boyfriend, Dave. At first everything worked beautifully: the business grew exponentially and was soon more profitable than either of them had dreamed. But, in time, their romantic relationship ended. Soon after that, disagreements developed about the basic direction of the company. The disagreements escalated into conflict. It became clear to both of them that they couldn’t work together any longer and would have to go their separate ways.

    Unfortunately for Mike, most of the assets were in Dave’s name, something they had both long intended to change and had never gotten around to doing. Dave emptied the accounts and walked away with virtually everything. “I tried to fight him and lost,” Mike said. “In law, he was within his rights, but in terms of basic fairness, he completely screwed me. And he knows it.” Their relationship ended, and Mike is left feeling bitter and betrayed.

    He has an opportunity to get even. Dave has a monogamous commitment with his new partner, Andrew, but Mike knows that he’s cheating on him with one of Mike’s friends. If Mike tells Andrew, he will cause Dave a devastating loss. He has some qualms about the morality of what he’s contemplating. He knows the disclosure will hurt Andrew. But like many vengeful people, he has ways of rationalizing that (“He has the right to know,” etc.). But what he doesn’t question is a psychological assumption. Leaving aside the moral questions, he’s sure that getting even will make him feel better. He believes that vengeance is sweet. Is that true?

    Kevin Carlsmith (1967–2011), who was a Stanford fellow and social psychologist at Colgate University in New York, conducted some excellent research on the belief that getting even makes people feel better. His findings suggest that it may have exactly the opposite result.

    In a series of experiments, he and his colleagues set up a group investment game with students. In this game, if everyone cooperated, everyone would benefit equally. However, if someone refused to invest his or her money, that person would disproportionately benefit at the group’s expense. Carlsmith planted a secret experimenter in each group and had them convince everyone to invest equally. But when it came time to put up the money, the plants defected, and wound up earning more than those who played fair. Then he offered some groups a way to get back at the defector. They could spend some of their own earnings to financially punish him. “Virtually everybody was angry over what happened to them,” he reported, “and everyone given the opportunity [for revenge] took it.”

    Next, he gave the students a survey to measure their feelings after the experiment. He also asked the groups who had been allowed to punish the defector to predict how they would feel if they hadn’t been allowed to, and he asked the non-punishing groups how they thought they’d feel if they had. In this 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. In other words, both groups thought revenge would be sweet, but their own reported feelings contradicted that expectation.

    Carlsmith concluded that revenge stokes our anger, rather than quenching it. His explanation is that, when we don’t get revenge, it’s easier to let go of the wrong and move on. But when we do get it, we constantly have to justify to ourselves what we did by ruminating about the enormity of the wrong that was done to us. “Rather than providing closure, [revenge] does the opposite: It keeps the wound open and fresh,” he says. Instead of helping you to move on with your life, revenge can actually leave you dwelling on the situation and seething in unhappiness.

    These findings support the age-old wisdom that forgiveness is wiser than vengeance. Mike believes that hurting Dave will relieve him of his torment, but if he can accept the evidence that this idea is a delusion, he may be able to forego the dubious pleasure of vengeance—not just because doing that is consistent with his ideas of right and wrong, but because it’s really the only path to lightening the burden of his own pain.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website