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Why retaliation may be an effective economic tool


Retaliation may seem like antisocial behavior, but can it have some positive outcomes? Some researchers went looking for answers from a unique group of subjects. Planet Money's Mary Childs has the story.

MARY CHILDS, BYLINE: I saw this economic study recently that felt like it was trying to give me life advice. Maybe counterintuitive life advice, but if the research is robust, I'm interested. So I called one of the researchers, Siri Isaksson. She's an assistant professor at the Norwegian School of Economics.

SIRI ISAKSSON: Retaliation is very, very important, and it's something that's part of so many different interactions. But at the same time, it's very hard to quantify.

CHILDS: Retaliation - basically, seeking revenge. It's really hard to study because the real-life situations in which a person might seek revenge are so messy. But Isaksson's co-author thought of this game show in Sweden. It's on SVT. It's called "Vem Vet Mest?" which means "Who Knows Most?"


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking non-English language).


CHILDS: And this show happens to be ideal for studying retaliation. First, there's a ton of potential data points because it had been on basically every weeknight since 2008, and the way it was structured had this one part that made contestants essentially choose to retaliate or not.

ISAKSSON: So the first question is thrown out by the game show host, who randomly picks someone...



ISAKSSON: ...And then basically...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking non-English language).

ISAKSSON: ...If you answer correctly...




ISAKSSON: ...Now you earned the right to throw this question to someone else.

CHILDS: Which is an opportunity to knock out one of your opponents. So for the purposes of their study, Isaksson and her co-authors defined throwing a question to someone as an act of aggression. And then the researchers watched for what contestants did next.

ISAKSSON: What happens is, I answer correctly, and I throw it directly back at you, right? That's what we define as a direct retaliation. So that is me showing toughness to the whole crowd. And I've shown them then that don't throw these questions at me because I'm going to throw them right back.

CHILDS: And the researchers found this move - throwing it right back - is effective. When contestants retaliated, they lowered the probability of getting future questions, thereby increasing their odds of success. There was something in this finding that made it even more interesting.

ISAKSSON: When we look at do people use this opportunity to retaliate once they're attacked, men do it 20% of the time and women do it five percentage points less - so about 15% of the time, which is a, I would say, a huge effect.

CHILDS: That is huge. Men were using this effective strategy a lot more than women were.

ISAKSSON: However - and this is quite fascinating - what you see is that women retaliate much less than men. But those women who do in fact retaliate, the effect, the warding-off effect on future attacks for those women is twice as large as it is for the men who retaliate.


ISAKSSON: So that's quite interesting.

CHILDS: So they learned retaliation is effective. Men retaliate more than women. And women who do retaliate get even more bang for their buck. But Isaksson cautions against extrapolating too much from this.

Do you recommend retaliation outside of this game show?

ISAKSSON: So I think that's a very good question. And I think more research is needed for this.

CHILDS: Because just issuing an edict from a finding like this is not the best idea. Isaksson cited this study on women negotiating their salaries. Typically, women negotiate less, so the researchers pushed women to act more like men, and those women who were pushed into negotiating more ended up worse off.

ISAKSSON: We cannot say that if these women would just do things this way, that the same thing would happen because the women who are retaliating, the women who are negotiating - they might be different.

CHILDS: They might be the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world, and that - what works for Sheryl isn't going to work for me.

ISAKSSON: Exactly, exactly. It depends on who you are, right?

CHILDS: So maybe it's like if you think you're bad at revenge, don't force yourself. But otherwise - I don't know. Maybe give it a try. Smite your enemies.

Mary Childs, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Mary Childs (she/her) is a co-host and correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before joining the team in 2019, she was a senior reporter at Barron's magazine, where she covered the alternatives industry, the bond market and capitalism. Before that, she worked at the Financial Times and Bloomberg News. She's written about the pioneering of new asset classes like time, billionaire's proposals to solve inequality and diversity and discrimination in the finance industry. Before all that, she was also a Watson Fellow, spending a year traveling the world painting portraits. She graduated from Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, with a degree in business journalism and an honors thesis comparing the use and significance of media sting operations in the U.S. and India.