Many early psychological views toward revenge were based on the larger concept of emotional catharsis. This idea, still widely held in the popular culture, suggests that venting aggression ultimately purges it from the body. But empirical research failed to validate the theory of catharsis, and some recent work contradicts it entirely. In a 2002 paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, APS Fellow Brad Bushman of The Ohio State University reported higher levels of aggression in people who had supposedly vented their anger than in those who had done nothing at all.
If cathartic activity fails to dissolve hostility in general, what is to say revenge will dissolve the anger caused by one offense in particular? That doubt laid the foundation for a recent series of tests led by Kevin Carlsmith of Colgate, who conducted the research with APS Fellows and Charter Members Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard. Wilson and Gilbert have often found that people make powerful mistakes when predicting how they will feel about something in the future; with Carlsmith, they asked whether people could be wrong about the expected emotional benefits of revenge as well. Perhaps revenge is sweet, or perhaps the words of Francis Bacon are more accurate: “A man that studieth revenge, keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal, and do well.”