The Therapeutic Limits of Revenge Fantasies

Revenge fantasies are certainly satisfying—but are they bad for you?

A new study published in the Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry examined exactly that. Researchers subjected several dozen psychologically healthy subjects to three disturbing five-minute clips from Funny Games, Sleepers, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; the clips involve physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.

After watching the clips, subjects tried one of three therapeutic exercises. In the first, they imagined entering the scene and exacting violent revenge. In the second, they imagined entering the scene and intervening non-violently. In the third, they imagined transporting the victim to a safe space, such as a white, sandy beach.

Researchers found that the three clips provoked as much anger and sadness as you’d expect (or know, provided you’ve seen those films). However, they also found that the imagery exercises helped their subjects in dealing with that anger, but the three therapies were not equal. The safe space imagery reduced feelings of anger and aggression more than the other two, and it had the added benefit of better facilitating relaxation and happiness.

A day later, researchers showed participants images of perpetrators from the various films. This caused participants to feel anger and aggression, irrespective of which of the three therapies they used the day before.

These findings suggest that violent revenge fantasies aren’t especially damaging, but neither are they especially helpful. That said, the subjects of this study were psychologically healthy; further studies on people psychologically damaged (i.e., like the characters of any of the three films they used) could indeed yield different results.

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