In Stories, Revenge Is More Enjoyable To Audiences Than Forgiveness

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Civilization has come a long way since Hammurabi’s ancient decree of “an eye for an eye,” but that doesn’t mean most people still don’t enjoy the bad guy getting their comeuppance, at least when it comes to entertainment. A new study conducted at Ohio State University finds that audiences enjoy vengeance much more than forgiveness. However, stories that are centered around forgiveness tend to be more meaningful and thought-provoking.

“We like stories in which the wrongdoers are punished and when they get more punishment than they deserve, we find it fun,” comments lead study author Matthew Grizzard, an assistant professor of communication at OSU, in a release. “Still, people appreciate stories of forgiveness the most, even if they don’t find them to be quite as fun.”

The more civilized, ethical response to an injustice is to “turn the other cheek” or “forgive & forget,” with the idea being that if one sinks down to the same depths as their adversary they are really no better than the person they’ve labeled evil. But, that’s real life, and when moviegoers or TV viewers sit down to check out the latest fare, they tend to have much more fun when vengeance is the name of the game.

A total of 184 college students participated in the research, and were asked to read various short stories that were supposedly being considered as plots to TV episodes. Each student read 15 narratives each; five in which the villain was treated nicely by the victim, five that involved the villain receiving a just punishment, and another five that ended with the villain receiving an excessive punishment in comparison to his or her crimes.

Here’s an example of one opening scenario and three possible conclusions. To start, the villain steals $50 from a co-worker. In the first possible conclusion the victim forgives the thief and actually buys them a cup of coffee, in a second option the victim steals a $50 bottle of whiskey from the original thief in an act of “equitable retribution.” Finally, a third, more excessive ending to the story concludes with the victim taking back their money and downloading porn onto the thief’s work computer (“over-retribution”).

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Immediately after reading each scenario, participants were asked if they liked or disliked each possible conclusion. All in all, more people preferred the equitable retribution scenario (stealing the thief’s whiskey) to the other two options.

Student’s response times to each story were also tracked, and researchers noted that participants were much quicker to make a decision after reading the more moderate ending in comparison to the forgiving or excessive options.

“People have a gut-level response as to how they think people should be punished for wrongdoing and when a narrative delivers what they expect, they often respond more quickly,” Grizzard says.

After reading all the possible narratives, participants were also asked to rate how much they enjoyed (fun, entertaining) and appreciated (meaningful, moving) each story. Stories that involved the villain be over-punished were rated as the most enjoyable, while stories that ended in forgiveness were considered the least enjoyable.

Still, forgiving stories were also rated as the most meaningful.

So, while it took participants a bit longer to digest the stories that ended in forgiveness or excessive punishment, the study’s authors theorize these delays were for very different reasons. For stories that ended in extra vengeance, the pause was likely just to savor the comeuppance the villain received.

“It appears to be the darker side of just enjoying the vengeance,” Grizzard notes.

Meanwhile, students paused after reading the forgiveness stories because, while forgiving an enemy isn’t our first response to a transgression, once most people have a moment to think things over, they often opt to take the high road.

“But seeing a lack of punishment requires a level of deliberation that doesn’t come to us naturally. We can appreciate it, even if it doesn’t seem particularly enjoyable,” Grizzard concludes.

The study is published in Communication Research.

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