Laura Seebauer and her colleagues simulated the effects of trauma by having several dozen psychologically healthy students watch three disturbing and violent 5-minute clips from these films: Funny Games, Sleepers and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, involving torture and physical, emotional and sexual abuse. After each clip the students engaged in one of three therapeutic exercises. They either imagined entering the scene and dishing out violent retribution on the perpetrator; entering the scene and intervening in non-violent fashion; or simply transporting the victim to a safe place, such as a beautiful beach.
The nasty clips made the participants feel angry and sad as you'd expect. The imagery exercises helped, but not equally. The safe place imagery reduced anger, rage and aggression more than either of the more interventionist fantasies, and it also had a larger beneficial effect on relaxation and happiness. There was a trend for the violent revenge fantasies to provoke more joy but statistically this was non-significant.
To further test the risk of revenge fantasies inciting aggression, a day after the study the participants looked at Internet images of the perpetrators from the relevant films. Regardless of which imagery strategy they'd used for each film, there were no differences in the helplessness, distress or rage felt by the participants upon looking at these pictures.
Overall the study suggests that violent revenge fantasies are not risky in the sense of inciting more aggression and rage than non-violent imagery. However, therapeutically they weren't the most effective option - the safe place imagery was more calming and comforting. "In summary, our results are in favor of a flexible approach in image restructuring," the researchers said, "allowing vengeful fantasies when the patient is aware of them."
Unfortunately, the study has serious limitations, many acknowledged by the researchers. For this reason it is useful as inspiration for future research, but there are no real take-home lessons. Not only was this a healthy non-traumatised sample, but the intervention and measures were only short-lived. Most unfortunate of all, given the study goals, there was no measure of the participants' actual aggressive behaviour toward the film perpetrators (or representations of them), so we're left none the wiser as to whether revenge fantasies incite real life violence.
Seebauer, L., Froß, S., Dubaschny, L., Schönberger, M., & Jacob, G. A. (2013). Is it dangerous to fantasize revenge in Imagery Exercises? An Experimental Study. Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry.