When the Harm Done Can Never Be Balanced: Vicarious Revenge and the Death of Osama bin Laden
Monday, April 28, 2014
Posted by: Chad Rummel
April 29, 2014 – Friday will mark the third anniversary of
Osama bin Laden’s assassination,
a day when U.S. President Barack Obama famously stated “Justice has been done.”
But has it? A new study from a team of social psychology researchers led by Mario Gollwitzer of Philipps University of
Marburg, has questioned whether this instance of vicarious revenge led to
feelings of satisfaction and reestablished justice within the American public,
including whether bin Laden’s assassination ignited craving for more revenge.
Vicarious revenge, where the need for justice is felt not by
the victims, but by people in the same group, has been shown to feel similar to
personal revenge. Gollwitzer and his team developed two studies designed to test the notion “that Americans’
vengeful desires in the aftermath of 9/11 predicted a sense of justice achieved
after bin Laden’s death…”
The data suggest that those Americans who believed that bin
Laden’s assassination sent a message to the perpetrators (“Don’t mess with us”)
were also the ones who thought that his death balanced the scales of justice.
The second important finding from the study is that bin
Laden’s death did not fully quench Americans’ desire for revenge. Respondents
who showed a stronger sense of “justice achieved” also showed a stronger desire
to take further revenge against those who were responsible for the 9/11
Although justice might be achieved, the avengers might not
feel psychological closure. Reestablishing justice, successfully asserting
one’s message, does not necessarily close the chapter in the case of revenge.
The “how” matters
The third important finding presented shows that Americans
were more satisfied with fact that bin Laden was killed intentionally than the
possibility of bin Laden being killed accidentally (e.g., in an airplane
crash). Compared to self-reported responses from Pakistanis or Germans, Americans
felt much more satisfaction towards the death of bin Laden as it actually happened than towards any
other circumstance of his death.
Gollwitzer and his
team believe that this difference in “intent” reflects the fact that Americans
were the victims of 9/11, whereas Germans, for example, merely observed these
events, but were not directly involved in them.
The study " Vicarious
Revenge and the Death of Osama bin Laden,” by Mario Gollwitzer, Linda J.
Skitka, Daniel Wisneski,Arne Sjöström, Peter Liberman, Syed Javed Nazir, and
Brad J. Bushman was published online and in print in the May 2014 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin,
a journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP).
SPSP promotes scientific research that explores how people
think, behave, feel, and interact. With more than 6,000 members, the Society is
the largest organization of social and personality psychologists in the world.
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