The Blog

A Family Hurting Each Other Publicly and the Psychology of Revenge

The extraordinary texts and phone conversations between former Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne and his son, which have been widely reported, are difficult to comprehend. Do the latest findings from the psychology of revenge provide an insight into a family hurting each other so publicly?

The extraordinary texts and phone conversations between former Lib Dem MP Chris Huhne and his son, which have been widely reported, are difficult to comprehend. Do the latest findings from the psychology of revenge provide an insight into a family hurting each other so publicly?

Their Huhnes' son, Peter, appears furious and vengeful in these reported messages while the ex-MP appears almost dignified in the calmness of response. Yet psychological clues as to how this predicament spiralled so out of control, could lie embedded in these communications.

Now that it has emerged sections of the press were goading some of the revenge, and this lay behind some of these conversations, it is possible this was profoundly counterproductive to the longer term well-being of this family.

The media cheerlead the hunt for vengeance, often for their own ends, but should press regulators be examining exploitation of the natural human desire to get even? Particularly if psychological research finds revenge can be emotionally damaging?

"Sweet is revenge," wrote Lord Byron, but some psychologists now disagree. They believe that acts of vengeance encourage dwelling and rumination by the victim on the perpetrator of the initial wrong-doing. This prolongs negative emotional reactions, rather than shortens them. One strand of psychology experiments suggests seeking revenge doesn't actually make you feel better and bring closure - it does the reverse.

People punish others partly to repair hurt, but new research finds revenge produces the opposite of what the vengeful desire - it prevents closure - leading to feuds which become self-perpetuating.

This is one of the arguments of psychologists Kevin Carlsmith from Colgate University, Timothy Wilson from the University of Virginia and Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University in a study entitled 'The Paradoxical Consequences of Revenge'. Their series of experiments created situations where participants could punish others who had taken advantage and exploited an opportunity, creating an injustice. While those taking part in the experiment expected punishing transgressors would elevate mood, they were wrong, it actually made them feel worse.

This is because, the authors argue, we underestimate the extent to which punishment will encourage us to ruminate about the transgressor. These experiments also suggest we fail to realize that this is especially true if we instigate the punishment, as opposed to seeing someone else do it.

The study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, argues there's a widespread belief that exacting revenge will bring closure - producing relief from dwelling about the transgressor, when in fact it had the opposite effect--punishing the exploiter encourages people to obsess about them more, which in turn makes them feel worse.

But pursuing revenge remains one of the strongest human drives and leads to profoundly self-destructive behaviour. Getting even can become such a high priority that no matter what terrible thing was done to us, we harm ourselves more in our vengeful reaction. Why does revenge so often turns into an itch which can never be scratched? No matter what happens, to the victim or the transgressor afterwards in a feud, it appears some are never satisfied.

The most vengeful people are often those betrayed in a close relationship. Those who were once close can find it more difficult to forgive and forget, so perhaps psychology might be more helpful if instead of simply being against revenge, it uncovered if certain ways of getting even, were better than others?

Mario Gollwitzer and Markus Denzler from the Universität Koblenz-Landau, Germany and the University of Amsterdam, have conducted psychology experiments which might have uncovered a better quality of vengeance.

They posed the question - what is it we are truly after when we pursue revenge?

Gollwitzer and Denzler argue in their paper 'What makes revenge sweet: Seeing the offender suffer or delivering a message?' one popular view is that the goal is payback, getting even, making the offender get what they deserve. If revenge is proportional, it puts the world back into balance. This is a ''comparative suffering" theory of revenge.

But an alternative answer is that revenge aims at delivering a message to the offender, making him understand the morally reprehensible nature of their initial offence. According to this ''understanding theory", revenge is only satisfactory if the offender acknowledges that revenge was pursued because of their prior unfair behaviour.

The authors argue in their study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that the offender has to indicate that they realize that the penalty is because they behaved unjustly - it is only this which produces satisfactory closure for both.

The results from their study suggest seeing the offender suffer from fate does not satisfy those pursuing vengeance.

So, the authors argue the 'comparative suffering' theory of vengeance was not supported by their experiment. It seemed that only when participants took revenge and when the offender signalled understanding for this response, did the avengers appear more satisfied. This supports the 'understanding' theory of revenge. In the settling of scores, they are both in it together.

The findings suggest that the goal of delivering a message to the offender is more important for avengers than merely seeing the culprit suffer.

The crucial communication of revenge appears to be ''Never do this again to me".

Understanding this requires that the targets grasp why revenge was imposed upon them. An acknowledgement of what went wrong, an acceptance of responsibility and an expression of regret is what finally produces closure for the victim.

The strange conversations from this family hurting each other and so widely reported in the media now make more sense in the light of this research, that the best revenge is about the successful sending of, and the receiving of, a particular message.

The apparently dignified unemotional responses could have been part of what goaded the other side into their spiral of revenge. Because the person at the centre of this scandal still doesn't appear to grasp that what they need to do is to signal an understanding and emotional appreciation of the wrong-doing perpetrated, with the hurt caused.

Their lack of acknowledgement to this effect, according to this research, is likely to provoke the vengeful into ever more destructive acts.

But the press stepping in to exploit this situation possibly made it less likely the kind of closure which could have helped this family, was ever going to be achieved. But then again, the media love a good feud.

It would have been more edifying if instead of actively encouraging one party to make ruthless recorded phone calls, the journalists in question had first cautioned the vengeful with what the poet John Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, "Revenge, at first though sweet, Bitter ere long back on itself recoils".