We all know that projecting isn’t good — nobody wins when you scream at your husband or mom for no reason when you’re actually mad about an office squabble — but what’s scary is just how likely we are to take this to an extreme. A study from the Philipp University of Marburg in Germany found that “displaced revenge,” in which somebody takes out revenge on an innocent person who reminds them of the true wrongdoer, can still feel satisfying. This is especially true if that person is seen as being part of the same group as the original wrongdoer. While this may feel good for a hot second, I can’t imagine it doing anything positive for the relationships in your life — and it can even cross over into physically dangerous or problematic territory.
The study considered displaced revenge’s relationship to entitativity, a gauge of how closely a group of people is associated. A random group of moviegoers sitting in a theater together is low-entitativity, whereas a sports team where all the players are wearing the same uniform (an example offered up by Scientific American) are high-entitativity. The research consisted of three experiments, and in the first, participants were exposed to hypothetical situations of betrayal and revenge. In the second, participants were asked to reflect on a time they felt betrayed and consider how they might feel if they had a chance to exact revenge on innocent third parties. The final experiment allowed participants who’d actually been wronged to act out real-life revenge on real third-party people. Those who chose to exact revenge expressed higher feelings of justice when the person they carried out revenge on was more heavily associated (or had a higher entitativity) with the original antagonist.
When it comes to somewhat minor disagreements, this phenomenon can massively mess with your personal life. On a grander scale, it can encourage the negative targeting of groups of people, facilitate prejudice, and cause massive physical harm. One of the study’s researchers suggested highlighting the ways in which members of a large group vary to remind vengeance-seekers that a person closely associated with someone who hurt them is not deserving of any kind of unwarranted punishment. On a personal level, it’d help to avoid getting pass-aggro with your best friend because of a fight you had with her cousin or hating on every finance guy you meet just because one cheated on you that one time.
Reprinted with permission from the Frisky. Want more? Check out these related stories: