Yet another reason we’re not rational beings
A few years ago, Swiss researcher Ernst Fehr ran an experiment to see how far we’re willing to go to punish bad behavior.
The game went like this. Player A and Player B were given $10 each. Player A was given the option of giving his money to Player B, and if he did the money would quadruple, making Player B’s take $50 in total. Player B could then chose to keep the money or give some money back to A.
In a completely rational world, Player B would keep the entire $50, leaving A with nothing. Player A could easily expect that outcome, so he probably wouldn’t give B the money in the first place.
However most of the time, Player A handed the money over, with the expectation that he get half ($25) back. Most of the time, Player B obliged.
But if Player B decided to screw Player A, the Swiss researchers gave him an option, not typical of all the other variations of the “trust game” used before. Player A could pay cash out of his own pocket to the researcher, and in exchange the researcher would take money away from Player B’s prize at a ratio of $2 for every $1 paid. In other words, Player A could pay $10 to have $20 taken away from Player B.
A rational person, even after being screwed out of $25, wouldn’t pay. It just means he loses more cash. But most test subjects tended to take revenge.
While they considered the decision, the researchers gave their brains a PET scan. The subjects who decided to exact revenge showed a lot of activity in the dorsal striatum of their brains, an area associated with satisfaction. In fact, when the researchers varied how much it would cost Subject A to punish Subject B, those with more activity in that area of their brains were the most willing to pay more.
Revenge really is sweet.
Could that be why we’re all against “bailouts”?
Remember that $700 billion bailout bill President Bush signed at the height of the financial panic?
At the time, most everyone agreed that the financial world (and by extension, Main Street) would go to Hell if something wasn’t done to keep more banks from falling to pieces. There were a few arguments against the bill—it created a future expectation for banks that bailouts could happen again, for example—but most of the opposition boiled down to this (pulled from a comment at the Washington Post): “Screw the banks as they have gouged us.”
So even though there might have been good, rational reasons not to prop the banks up, I have a sneaking suspicion people just wanted to stick it to the banks, in the same way they stuck it to us. Damn the consequences; We were willing to suffer some pain in a more severe recession if it meant the banks got theirs.
Think about how that compulsion extends to personal revenges. You’ve heard the horror stories of fast food workers doing gross things to the food of customers who are rude to them. The customers likely never even find out that their food was spat in, but somehow the action satisfies the workers anyway, despite the real risk they have of getting caught and fired.
A few months ago, someone became so angry at United Airlines for mishandling his guitar that he spent (probably) dozens of hours creating a music video to ridicule them.
And, of course, there’s this election cycle. Voters seem to want to rush to the polls, not to vote the challenger in, but to vote the incumbent out. Rational? No. The challenger could have even worse policies than the guy in office. But it will sure feel good to stick it to the smug bastard taking your tax dollars.
I’m not going to end this post with a righteous call to give up revenge. After all, it does feel good, and some revenges—like spreading the word about a bad customer experience—cost nothing and might do some good.
Just don’t let yourself be manipulated by revenge to do things you’ll regret later. The anti-incumbent politician just wants your vote. The community bank, that talks about how it wasn’t one of the ones that screwed you, just wants your money. They’re happy to satisfy your thirst for revenge to get it.