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Revenge not satisfying without attitude change, study finds

May 14, 2014
Courtesy of Princeton University
and World Science staff

Re­venge may be a dish best served with a side of change.

Ex­pe­ri­ments con­ducted by re­search­ers af­fil­i­at­ed with Prince­ton Uni­vers­ity found that pun­ish­ment is only sat­is­fy­ing to vic­tims if it leads of­fend­ers to change their at­ti­tude.

“It is not the act it­self that makes pun­ish­ment sat­is­fy­ing,” said Fried­erike Funk, a Prince­ton grad­u­ate stu­dent in psy­chol­o­gy and one of the re­search­ers. “Re­venge is only ‘sweet’ if the per­son re­acts with a change in at­ti­tude, if the per­son un­der­stands that what they did was wrong.”

The find­ings of­fer in­sights in­to a wide range of situa­t­ion­s—from cas­u­al en­coun­ters to crim­i­nal sen­tenc­ing, the re­search­ers sug­gested in the work, pub­lished on­line this month by the jour­nal Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy Bul­le­tin

In one ex­pe­ri­ment, Prince­ton stu­dents were matched with what they were told was a hu­man part­ner to solve some scram­bled-word puz­zles. The par­ti­ci­pants were asked to in­di­vid­ually solve as many as they could in two min­utes. For each, they would get 10 cents.

The “part­ner”—ac­tu­ally a com­put­er pro­grammed to do the task—al­ways solved one few­er puz­zle than the par­ti­ci­pant. But when asked how the pair should split their earn­ings, the com­put­er part­ner al­ways wanted to keep the whole pay­ment for it­self. The hu­mans gen­er­ally rec­om­mended roughly an even split.

Most par­ti­ci­pants were then giv­en a chance to “pun­ish” the self­ish act by re­duc­ing the com­put­er part­ner’s earn­ings. Par­ti­ci­pants who pun­ished then re­ceived one of three re­ac­tions: ei­ther no feed­back, a mes­sage ac­knowl­edg­ing the pun­ish­ment but show­ing no change an at­ti­tude, or a mes­sage both ac­knowl­edg­ing the pun­ish­ment and show­ing an at­ti­tude change. 

Both mes­sages said, “Hey, you re­duced my bo­nus! OK—I was greedy.” But one went on to say “I don’t see what was wrong with that … In situa­t­ions like this I al­ways try to get as much as I can,” while the oth­er said, “now see what’s wrong with that … I should­n’t be such a jerk in situa­t­ions like this!”

“We found that pun­ish­ment was only sat­is­fy­ing if the trans­gres­sor changed his at­ti­tude,” and “only if such a change oc­curred, par­ti­ci­pants would agree that eve­ry­body got what they de­serve,” Funk said. Both no re­ac­tion, and re­ac­tion-without-change, “are equally as un­sat­is­fy­ing as if peo­ple did­n’t have the pos­si­bil­ity to pun­ish in the first place.”

The re­search rep­re­sents the first part of Funk’s work for her dis­serta­t­ion, which fo­cus­es on why peo­ple have the de­sire to pun­ish and what they hope to achieve through pun­ish­ment. Among the ques­tions still to be an­swered: When is change per­ceived to be au­then­tic?

While the re­search fo­cused on a mi­nor so­cial trans­gres­sion, it has im­plica­t­ions for more se­ri­ous situa­t­ions, the re­search­ers said. In real life, pun­ish­ment of­ten does­n’t br­ing about the mor­al change vic­tims seek, said Tyl­er Oki­moto, a man­age­ment expert at the Uni­vers­ity of Queens­land in Aus­tral­ia who re­searches con­flict man­age­ment and jus­tice restora­t­ion.

“Rec­on­cil­ing the dis­crep­an­cies in what peo­ple seek to achieve through pun­ish­ment,” said Oki­moto, who was­n’t in­volved in the re­search. “This re­search should raise red flags for le­gal pol­i­cy­makers... our sanc­tion­ing prac­tices might be adapted to bet­ter suit the con­cerns of the pub­lic.”


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Revenge may be a dish best served with a side of change. Experiments conducted by researchers affiliated with Princeton University found that punishment is only satisfying to victims if it causes offenders to change their attitude. “It is not the act itself that makes punishment satisfying,” said Friederike Funk, a Princeton graduate student in psychology and one of the researchers. “Revenge is only ‘sweet’ if the person reacts with a change in attitude, if the person understands that what they did was wrong.” The findings offer insights into a wide range of situations — from casual encounters to criminal sentencing, the researchers suggested in the work, published online this month by the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. In one experiment, Princeton students were matched with what they were told was a human partner to solve some anagrams, or puzzles that involve rearranging letters. The participants were asked to individually solve as many as they could in two minutes. For each, they would get 10 cents. The “partner” — actually a computer programmed to do the task — always solved one fewer puzzle than the participant. But when asked how the pair should split their earnings, the computer partner always wanted to keep the whole payment for itself. The humans generally recommended roughly an even split. Most participants were then given a chance to “punish” the selfish act by reducing the computer partner’s earnings. Participants who punished then received one of three reactions: either no feedback, a message acknowledging the punishment but showing no change an attitude, or a message both acknowledging the punishment and showing an attitude change. Both messages said, “Hey, you reduced my bonus! OK — I was greedy.” But one went on to say “I don’t see what was wrong with that … In situations like this I always try to get as much as I can,” while the other said, “now see what’s wrong with that … I shouldn’t be such a jerk in situations like this!” “We found that punishment was only satisfying if the transgressor changed his attitude,” and “only if such a change occurred, participants would agree that everybody got what they deserve,” Funk said. Both no reaction, and reaction-without-change, “are equally as unsatisfying as if people didn’t have the possibility to punish in the first place.” The research represents the first part of Funk’s work for her dissertation, which focuses on why people have the desire to punish and what they hope to achieve through punishment. Among the questions still to be answered: When is change perceived to be authentic? While the research focused on a minor social transgression, it has implications for more serious situations, the researchers said. In real life, punishment often doesn’t bring about the moral change victims seek, said Tyler Okimoto, a senior lecturer in management in the business school at the University of Queensland in Australia whose research topics include conflict management and justice restoration. “Reconciling the discrepancies in what people seek to achieve through punishment and what our sanctioning practices actually achieve is critical to improving the legitimacy of our justice system,” said Okimoto, who wasn’t involved in the research. “This research should raise red flags for legal policymakers. These findings suggest our sanctioning practices might be adapted to better suit the concerns of the public.”