Aggression often occurs in response to some frustration (Berkowitz, 1989). However, aggressive revenge, more specifically, is thought to be driven by negative affects such as anger in response to some transgression (Harmon‐Jones & Sigelman, 2001). Anger is experienced as an unpleasant emotional state often associated with the approach motivational system (Harmon‐Jones, 2004; Harmon‐Jones, Schmeichel, Mennitt, & Harmon‐Jones, 2011; Threadgill & Gable, 2019a). Approach motivation, or the impetus to move toward some goal or object, is a fundamental dimension of affective states (Gable, Neal, & Threadgill, 2018; Gable, Threadgill, & Adams, 2016; Harmon‐Jones, Harmon‐Jones, & Price, 2013; Pizzagalli, Sherwood, Henriques, & Davidson, 2005; Ridderinkhof, 2017; Threadgill & Gable, 2018a, 2019b). Much research has associated anger with approach motivation (for review, see Carver & Harmon‐Jones, 2009). For example, anger is associated with approach‐motivated urges (Dollard, Miller, Doob, Mowrer, & Sears, 1939; Harmon‐Jones, Price, Peterson, Gable, & Harmon‐Jones, 2013), approach‐oriented patterns of physiological responses (Jameison, Koslov, Nock, & Mendes, 2012) and relates to more approach‐motivated traits such as self‐assurance, strength, and bravery (Izard, 1991; Lerner & Keltner, 2001). Moreover, neural regions associated with approach motivation are activated during situational anger (see Gable & Poole, 2014; Gable, Poole, & Harmon‐Jones, 2015; Harmon‐Jones & Gable, 2018, for a review).
Past work has suggested that retaliatory aggression can be approach‐motivated. Harmon‐Jones and Sigelman (2001) found that, after an insult, participants who had greater left frontal alpha asymmetry, a neural correlate of approach motivation, engaged in more aggressive behavior. In contrast, participants who were led to believe that they could not act on their anger by taking actions to resolve an anger‐inducing event showed less left frontal alpha asymmetry than those who did expect to be able to resolve an anger‐inducing event (Harmon‐Jones, Sigelman, Bohlig, & Harmon‐Jones, 2003), suggesting that the ability to rectify an angering‐situation is approach‐motivating.
Other work has shown that participants rate aggressive responses after being provoked as more pleasurable than unjustified aggression (Ramirez, Bonniot‐Cabanac, & Cabanac, 2005). Chester et al. (2016) found that greater sensation‐seeking mediated the relationship between dopamine receptor gene polymorphisms (which is associated with reward seeking behaviors) and previous history of aggression. Additionally, retaliatory behaviors are associated with activity in the ventral striatum, a key component of the reward system in the brain (Chester & DeWall, 2018). Together, this work suggests that approach‐motivated anger is related to both aggressive behaviors and the experience of positive emotions, such as pleasure after aggression.
Based on this past work, an important next step in understanding revenge is to examine how anger impacts the experience of winning the opportunity for revenge. It seems likely that simply winning the opportunity for revenge may elicit emotional responses similar to the pleasant feelings elicited by partaking in revengeful behaviors. No past work has examined how anger impacts the rapid neural reactions to winning the opportunity to partake in revenge‐seeking behaviors. Therefore, we conducted two studies in which participants were made angry by an ostensible aggressor. Participants then engaged in a novel aggression paradigm where, on some trials, they were able to seek revenge against the offending individual, while, on other trials, participants simply beat their opponent in a reaction time game. The present studies sought to shed light on transitory reactions to winning the opportunity to seek revenge against a transgressor. To examine these momentary reactions to winning the ability to get revenge toward an angering situation, we examined the reward positivity (RewP), an ERP component that evaluates outcomes as either positive or negative.