Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 11th July 2009
This week I have attempted to engage in meaningful disputes with morons who have misled their readers using untrue facts. I will rise above it, because I am a nice guy. More importantly, I don’t want to end up being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder, the new mental health problem being debated at the American Psychiatric Association conference.
Bitterness is a response that endures destructively, argues Dr Michael Linden, driving people to ruminate endlessly, and seeth for revenge, which itself is no cure. It is a psychiatric problem. It requires diagnosis and treatment.
Now there are two important and separate issues here. The first is what a diagnosis means, and whether it does good or harm.
Regular readers with be familiar with the intellectual land-grab of “medicalisation”. Sometimes it’s about transforming a subjective moral objection into an objective, sciencey problem, as we saw with homosexuality and psychiatry. Sometimes it’s about reframing a problem to sell a solution: drug companies foster a belief that depression is down to serotonin, even though the evidence is hugely contradictory, to a public eager for simple, molecular answers. Bad school performance is related to omega-3, imply the supplement peddlers: so buy an omega-3 fish oil pill. Clomicalm, say the adverts, is “the first medication approved for the treatment of separation anxiety in dogs”.
Sometimes a new diagnosis about reassuring people in distress that they are not alone, and that others have experienced the same problems. Sometimes it’s about expanding your professional remit. Sometimes it’s a practical tool to offer practical help in a culture that foolishly requires medical labels to take anything seriously. Sometimes a diagnosis can be disempowering, and encourage us to abrogate responsibility.
But even if we think that diagnoses are a blunt and dubious tool, there still remains an important question: can science offer any practical help and insight, in our pursuit of an evidence based life? Put very simply, if we desire it, does revenge work?
People certainly believe in it, from modern thrillers such as Hamlet and Moby Dick, to classics like Kill Bill and Death Wish I-V. As Nietzsche said, “to witness suffering does one good, to inflict it even more so”. But while there is a huge literature on punishment, most of it is either dreary philosophising on the justification, or psychology research into the consequences of receiving it. People haven’t looked so much at our more important question: the pleasurable consequences for the avenger.
Kevin Carlsmith, Timothy Wilson, and Daniel Gilbert from Colgate, Virginia and Harvard universities report the first useful experiment on this subject in a recent paper from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. You should be wary of over-extrapolating from one idealised study, but here are the details.
They took 48 students and got them all to play a game for money: players could earn cash if they cooperated, but a player who did not cooperate could make more money, at the other players’ expense, as a “free rider”, by appearing to cooperate, and then welching on a deal at the last minute.
The game, of course, was staged. The other players were computer algorithms (although most students didn’t notice), and they were programmed to be nasty: on several trials, one of the players would warmly encourage the others to cooperate, coming over all friendly, but then, at the last minute, turn on their fellow players, making more money for themselves, and robbing the students of both their reward and their peace of mind.
Some of the students were then offered the opportunity to punish the person who had ripped them off, at cost to themselves: for every 5c they spent, 15c would be confiscated from the free rider.
Asked how they would feel about punishing their adversaries, students said they thought it would make them feel better. They were wrong. The participants who were offered – and took – the opportunity to exact revenge actually felt worse afterwards than the ones who had no such opportunity.
It may be that by taking revenge, we prolong our ruminations, and allow a tedious experience to drag us down further. Perhaps we are always bad at predicting our own future emotional states. In any case, if the results of this experiment stand, turning the other cheek has an element of selfishness to it. And if you are ever forced into an act of revenge, you can comfort yourself with the thought that this is a selfless act.