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Who is Better at Revenge, Men or Women?

When it comes to seeing a fair and trustworthy person harmed, we all feel a sense of empathy. But if that person is perceived as deserving of the harm, men may get a sense of satisfaction, and actually enjoy the person's misfortune.

This is according to a new study by University College London, published in Nature. When it comes to revenge, the researchers found, men seem to welcome it.

Men may be more likely to take on roles in law enforcement because they may have a greater desire for revenge than women.

"This investigation would seem to indicate there is a predominant role for men in maintaining justice and issuing punishment," said the study's lead researcher, Dr. Tania Singer.

Empathy Differs for Men and Women

The study involved 32 men and women, along with four hired actors, who partook in a monetary investment game. The actors played certain parts to make themselves "likeable and fair" by giving back more money than necessary or "unlikable and unfair" by keeping more money than they really should have.

Next, the actors received mild electric shocks, which the participants viewed and the scientists monitored via brain scans.

"When you see someone receiving a shock, you have activations in the pain-related area of your brain," said study co-author Klaas Stephan of University College London in a LiveScience report.

But while both men and women showed empathy for the "fair" actors, only women showed empathy for the "unfair" actors. Men, along with showing no empathy, did show a surge of activity in the reward center of the brain -- which suggests they may have enjoyed watching the shock. Dr. Singer explained:

"Men expressed more desire for revenge and seemed to feel satisfaction when unfair people were given what they perceived as deserved physical punishment. This type of behavior has probably been crucial in the evolution of society as the majority of people in a group are motivated to punish those who cheat on the rest.

This altruistic behavior means that people tend to protect each other against being exploited by society's free-loaders, and evolution has probably seeded this sense of justice and moral duty into our brains."

Whether or not these findings would hold true in all situations, such as if the punishment had been a verbal insult rather than a physical shock, is unknown.

"If we had chosen a different type of punishment, say social punishment, then women might have shown a different reaction," Stephan said.

No matter how angry you may feel, forgiveness is essential to your physical and mental health.

Is Revenge Healthy?

Whether or not men and women can change their vengeful feelings is debatable, but what those angry feelings do for your health is not. Holding on to long-standing hurts is bad both physically and emotionally, for men and women alike.

"Everything bad that unresolved anger does to men, it also does to women," says Redford B. Williams, M.D., director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center and a professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center. "And the 'badness' occurs in women at the same rate as in men ... People prone to traits associated with an unwillingness to forgive are at a higher risk of dying from all causes."

These causes include everything from general aging to cancer. Says Gerald G. Jampolsky, M.D., founder of the Center for Attitudinal Healing in Tiburón, California, "Besides the depression and anxiety it causes, it can also lead to wrinkles, heart disease, depression and a host of other physical problems that take the zip and zest out of your life. The good news is, when you forgive you can wipe the slate clean, and sometimes maybe even reverse some of the damage done."

Interestingly, just as men may be more likely than women to take pleasure from revenge, they also have a harder time learning to forgive -- a finding that could impact them on a number of levels.

"We found that those with the lowest tolerance for forgiveness also had the lowest levels of self-esteem and the highest levels of anxiety and depression," says Robert Enright, Ph.D., educational psychologist and professor of human development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"But when they learn to forgive, their self-esteem increases while their depression and anxiety decrease. And I guess you could say that people with high self-esteem tend to take better care of themselves, so they feel better," he says.

What can you do to help yourself forgive?

  • Think of today, don't dwell on the past or worry about the future.

  • Focus on being happy ... not right.

  • Try to look at things from the other person's perspective.

  • Look at the deeper, often hidden, causes of why you may be feeling or holding on to resentment.

  • Try to avoid being a victim, particularly if your being hurt (by being lied to, patronized, belittled, threatened, etc.) is a pattern. Seek to understand why the pattern may exist.

  • Write down your feelings on paper to help you come to terms with why you're really upset, and why you need to forgive.

Recommended Reading

If You Seek Emotional Health, There is No Greater Nourishment Than Forgiveness

The Powerful Influencing Effect of People's Faces on Your Behavior


BBC News: Revenge 'More Satisfying for Men' Men Enjoy Physical Revenge Forgiveness

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