When harm done can never be balanced: Vicarious revenge and the death of Osama bin Laden

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.

Justice achieved

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 terrorist attacks.

Although justice might be achieved, the avengers might not feel psychological closure. Reestablishing , successfully asserting one's message, does not necessarily close the chapter in the case of .

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.

Explore further: Online revelry at Osama bin Laden's death

More information: 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).

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5 / 5 (1) Apr 29, 2014
I can only comment on my own feelings, particularly about bin Laden. I felt no joy at news of his death, but I did believe the killing of him was very justified.
On the topic of terrorists in general... We are fighting a very different kind of war and the use of any means to hunt down and kill anyone who has or threatens to kill, maim or other wise damage freedom loving people is fine with me. If some of those targeted happen to be US citizens who are over seas and participating in the planning or execution of terrorist plans, they become fair 'game' in my mind.
3 / 5 (2) Apr 30, 2014
to the neocon troll above and other sheeple - OBL was a construct of the CIA when it was in their best interest - according to multiple international sources - Osama passed likely in 2001 from his chronic health problems (well documented disease- as ALCIADA visited him in the hospital to make sure he could live long enough to be of use). Whoever the Pakistani or Seals killed three years ago and tossed into the sea was assuredly not the evil prince himself. By keeping saying the warrior President and his liveried acolytes does NOT make it true mon ami.

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