Revenge Is Sweeter Than Forgiveness, At Least In Stories, Says Study

People enjoy seeing bad guys in stories get their punishment more than witnessing them being forgiven, according to a study. However, even though people don’t enjoy the forgiveness stories as much, they do find these narratives more meaningful and thought-provoking than ones in which the bad guys get punished.

“We like stories in which the wrongdoers are punished and when they get more punishment than they deserve, we find it fun,” said Matthew Grizzard, lead author of the study and assistant professor at The Ohio State University in the US.

“Still, people appreciate stories of forgiveness the most, even if they don’t find them to be quite as fun,” Grizzard said in a statement.

The study, published in the journal Communication Research, involved 184 college students who read short narratives that they were told were plots to possible television episodes. The students read 15 narratives: one-third in which the villain was treated positively by the victim, while one-third in which the villain received a just punishment.

The rest involved the villain who was punished over and beyond what would have been a suitable penalty for the crime. Immediately after reading each scenario, the participants were asked if they liked or disliked the narrative. More people liked the equitable retribution stories than those that involved under- or over-retribution, Grizzard said.

The researchers also timed how long it took the readers to click the like or dislike button on the computer after reading each of the narratives. They found that readers took less time to respond to stories with equitable retribution than it did for them to respond to stories with under- or over-retribution. “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 said.

When the punishment did not fit the crime, the participants took a bit longer to respond to the story with a like or dislike. However, why they took longer appeared to be different for stories with under-retribution versus stories with over-retribution, Grizzard said.

After the participants read all 15 narratives, they rated each story for enjoyment, and appreciation. Participants thought stories in which the bad guys were over-punished would be the most enjoyable and those in which the bad guys were forgiven would be the least enjoyable to watch. However, they also said they would appreciate the stories about forgiveness more than the other two types of narratives, according to the researchers.

The participants may have paused slightly before responding to the forgiveness stories to reflect, because they saw them as more meaningful, Grizzard said.

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