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Vindictiveness doesn’t pay, study finds

March 30, 2009
Courtesy University of Bonn
and World Science staff

Vin­dic­tive­ness does­n’t pay, suggests a new study that found that peo­ple in­clined to deal with in­equ­ity on a tit-for-tat ba­sis tend to suf­fer more un­em­ploy­ment than oth­ers.

These vengeful types al­so have less friends and are less sat­is­fied with life, ac­cord­ing to the study of Ger­mans con­ducted by re­search­ers at Bonn Uni­ver­s­ity, Ger­ma­ny, and Maas­tricht Uni­ver­s­ity in The Neth­er­lands.

Vin­dic­tive­ness does­n’t pay, con­cludes a new study that found that peo­ple in­clined to deal with in­equ­ity on a tit-for-tat ba­sis tend to suf­fer more un­em­ploy­ment than oth­ers. (Im­age © Na­ra Os­qa)


Most of us tend to live by the mot­to “tit for tat.” We re­pay a din­ner in­vita­t­ion with a counter-in­vita­t­ion; when a friend helps us to move house, we help to move his fur­ni­ture a few months lat­er. On the oth­er hand, we re­pay mean­ness in the same coin; the Old Tes­ta­ment dic­tum of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is­n’t too in­ac­cu­rate. 

Sci­en­tists call both ten­den­cies re­ciprocity. The act of re­paying kind­ness is called pos­i­tive re­ciprocity; that of aveng­ing un­fair­ness, neg­a­tive re­ciprocity. Many peo­ple in­cline more to the first, oth­ers more to the sec­ond, and oth­ers to both about equal­ly.

The Bonn and Maas­tricht re­search­ers an­a­lyzed an­nu­al sur­vey da­ta gath­ered by the Berlin-based Ger­man In­sti­tute for Eco­nom­ic Re­search. The sur­veys in­volve around 20,000 re­spon­dents from through­out Ger­ma­ny and cov­er a va­ri­e­ty of top­ics. Among oth­er items, sub­jects have been asked to state to what ex­tent they would re­pay a favour—or an in­sult.

The an­a­lysts checked these da­ta against oth­er sur­vey re­sults, and said they stum­bled up­on some in­ter­est­ing cor­rela­t­ions. “Pos­i­tively re­ciprocal peo­ple tend on av­er­age to per­form more over­time” work, but only when they find the pay fair, said Thom­as Dohmen of Maas­tricht Uni­ver­s­ity, one of the re­search­ers. “As they are very sen­si­tive to in­cen­tives, they al­so tend to earn more mon­ey.” 

That’s in con­trast to vin­dic­tive folk, for whom more mon­ey does­n’t al­ways in­spire more la­bor, he added. Tougher meas­ures aimed at get­ting more work out of them, such as pay cuts, may al­so fail. Ul­ti­mately the dan­ger arises that they will take re­venge – such as by re­fus­ing to work, or by sab­o­tage.

“On the ba­sis of these the­o­ret­i­cal con­sid­era­t­ions it would be nat­u­ral to ex­pect that neg­a­tively re­ciprocal peo­ple are more likely to lose their job­s—a sup­po­si­tion which co­in­cides with our re­sults,” said Bonn Uni­ver­s­ity’s Ar­min Falk, anoth­er mem­ber of the re­search team. “Nega­tively re­ciprocal peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence a sig­nif­i­cantly high­er rate of un­em­ploy­ment,” in ad­di­tion to hav­ing few­er friends and re­port­ing less life sat­is­fac­tion, he added.

The study ap­pears in the cur­rent is­sue of The Eco­nom­ic Jour­nal.


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Vindictiveness doesn’t pay, concludes a new study that found that people inclined to deal with inequity on a tit-for-tat basis tend to suffer more unemployment than others. Vindictive people also have less friends and are less satisfied with life, according to the study of Germans conducted by researchers at Bonn University, Germany, and Maastricht University in The Netherlands. Most of us tend to live by the motto “tit for tat.” We repay a dinner invitation with a counter-invitation; when a friend helps us to move house, we help to move his furniture a few months later. On the other hand, we repay meanness in the same coin; the Old Testament dictum of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” isn’t too inaccurate. Scientists call both tendencies reciprocity. The act of repaying kindness is called positive reciprocity; that of avenging unfairness, negative reciprocity. Many people incline more to the first, others more to the second, and others to both about equally. The Bonn and Maastricht researchers analyzed annual survey data gathered by the Berlin-based German Institute for Economic Research. The surveys involve around 20,000 respondents from throughout Germany and cover a variety of topics. Among other items, subjects have been asked to state to what extent they would repay a favour—or an insult. The analysts checked these data against other survey results, and said they stumbled upon some interesting correlations. “Positively reciprocal people tend on average to perform more overtime,” but only when they find the pay fair, said Thomas Dohmen of Maastricht University, one of the researchers. “As they are very sensitive to incentives, they also tend to earn more money.” That’s in contrast to vindictive folk, for whom more money doesn’t always inspire more labor, he added. Tougher measures aimed at getting more work out of them, such as pay cuts, may also fail. Ultimately the danger arises that they will take revenge – such as by refusing to work, or by sabotage. “On the basis of these theoretical considerations it would be natural to expect that negatively reciprocal people are more likely to lose their jobs—a supposition which coincides with our results,” said Bonn University’s Armin Falk, another member of the research team. “Negatively reciprocal people experience a significantly higher rate of unemployment,” in addition to having fewer friends and reporting less life satisfaction, he added. The study appears in the current issue of the Economic Journal.