An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind, Mahatma Gandhi said. That may be true, but at least we’ll all be in a better mood — that’s if we’re to believe the recent findings made by researchers at the University of Kentucky. According to lead researchers David Chester and C. Nathan DeWall, once people get ostracized through social rejection, a feeling of being unwanted and wounded triggers a need to repair our mood. They found that retaliation through aggression can indeed be a very accessible and viable mood repair method, as reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Chester and DeWall recruited 156 volunteers who were asked to write an essay on a personal topic. The subject wasn’t important and the essays were then swapped among the participants who had to give feedback. Unbeknownst to the participants, some of these feedbacks were written by the researchers who purposely were very nasty. “One of the worst essays I have EVER read,” one such comment wrote.
The volunteers were then given the chance to symbolically express their aggression by sticking pins in a virtual voodoo doll who represented the person who offered the feedback. Mood was measured before and after this act. Those participants who felt rejected did improve mood once they frantically clicked the computer mouse to stick the pins. In fact, their mood was indistinguishable from participants who’d receive positive feedback.
Did the participants behave aggressively, albeit in a harmless way, because they were unconsciously trying to improve their mood? This first experiment couldn’t’ determine the underlying motive, but a second involving 154 new volunteers should pin it down. In this new setup, each participant was given a ‘smart’ pill which would supposedly enhance their cognitive abilities for the test to come. Some of them, however, were told that as a side effect the pill would fix their mood for some time. Suffice to say this was all a gimmick and the pill was an inert placebo.
Everyone was invited to play a three-player computer game which involved passing a ball back and forth. Participants thought the other players were human, however, they were all paired with computers. Some were grouped in the ‘rejected condition’ where the computer was programmed to pass the ball to the human only three out of 30 times. Those who played in the ‘accepted condition’ received an equal share of passes.
Similarly to the first experiment, the participants rated how rejected they felt and were then given the chance to enact their vengeance in round 2. This time they played a different game whose goal was to be among the first to push a buzzer. Each round, the slowest player received an annoying buzz of noise through their headphones. When participants were faster, as a reward they were given the opportunity to adjust how intense the buzz suffered by the slowpokes would be. They could crank the noise up to 105 decibels which is about just as loud as a helicopter hovering at 100 feet.
The participants who were earlier rejected earlier in the game generally chose to inflict louder blasts on their opponents, those who refused to pass the ball earlier. However, those who were told their mood would remain static as a consequence of the smart pill did not feel the urge to up the buzzer’s intensity. Instead, these participants restricted the sound blast to the lower levels, like participants who hadn’t suffered earlier rejection.
“Together, these findings suggest that the rejection–aggression link is driven, in part, by the desire to return to affective homeostasis. Additionally, these findings implicate aggression’s rewarding nature as an incentive for rejected individuals’ violent tendencies,” the researchers wrote.
This so-called fixed moon group was still affected by the rejection suffered earlier as their self-reported rejection rating was as high as the other ostracized participants. However, because they were coaxed that their mood would stay fixed, they decided not to lash out. I’m certain there’s a zen teaching hidden somewhere.
Although the experiments were focused on rejection-based aggression, the findings might explain why pointless aggression can deliver outcomes like improved mood in other situations as well. This study shouldn’t justify seeking provocation just to improve your mood after someone hurt your feelings, though. Chester and DeWall recommend other mood enhancing alternatives like meditation.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.