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Everyone Needs an Enemy

February has come and gone, and, fortunately (for some), the Valentine’s Day craze has left with it. Leading up to and throughout the month, contributors at Science of Relationships worked overtime to bring you as much research as possible about the day of love (click here for a thorough recap). With all of the hullabaloo, I think I fell into a state Valentine’s Day fatigue; quite frankly, I’m tired of hearing about love!

Instead of love, what about hate? Instead of parents, close friends, and romantic partners, what about enemies? Batman had the Joker; Harry Potter had Voldemort; Austin Powers had Dr. Evil; Jennifer Aniston has Angelina Jolie. What about non-superheroes/celebrities, you ask? Don’t regular people have enemies, too? (for the record, Science of Relationships doesn’t have any enemies. We’re lovers, not fighters.) And, if so, what functions do enemies serve, and are there benefits to having a mortal nemesis?

In a recent paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sullivan and colleagues1 provide evidence that enemies are important relationships for people to have. So what’s so great about having an enemy? For one, having an enemy can come in handy when you feel a loss of control over your environment and feel threatened. In general, we like to feel like we live in an orderly world and that we have control over what happens in our lives. Sullivan and his colleagues suggest that blaming enemies for the unpredictable bad things that happen to us can help us restore our sense of personal control. Basically, turning our enemies into scapegoats makes us feel more in control.

In one study, some of their participants were exposed to an unpredictable threat, by reading about the annual number of deaths in the United States due to causes that were particularly unpredictable or chaotic (e.g., food poisoning, natural disasters, etc.). Among these participants, those who felt a low level of personal control over their lives indicated that their personal enemy had more influence on their life.  Another of the researchers’ studies helped to explain why this happens. Specifically, when participants had their sense of control threatened (e.g., thinking about natural disasters, economy woes, or other things they would have no control over), thinking of a powerful enemy resulted in participants feeling more in control. In other words, when unpredictable negative things — homicides, natural disasters, disease — happen around us that threaten our sense of personal control over our lives, we are more likely to think of our personal nemesis, which subsequently helps us to restore our sense of personal control.

Interestingly, enemies can also help us create friends. In a classic study by Aronson and Cope,2 participants were presented with three pictures, and asked to write a story about each picture. Afterwards, an assistant read each story, ostensibly for the purpose of rating how creative participants’ stories were. The assistant then provided negative feedback to the participant (e.g., “your stories were uncreative and unimaginative”) with either a pleasant delivery (e.g., “don’t worry too much about it though—it’s only one test of creativity”) or a harsh delivery (e.g., “this is a great test of creativity; you really suck at this”). The assistant then left the room to have a discussion out in the hall with the principal researcher, which participants could overhear. The conversation between the researcher and the assistant was either one where the principal researcher praised the assistant for writing an amazing report, or condemned the assistant for writing a worthless report. After the experiment appeared to be over, a department secretary asked participants whether they would help the principal researcher by placing phone calls to help with recruitment for a different study. Participants placed more calls for the researcher when the researcher had berated an assistant who had delivered negative feedback harshly to the participant—i.e., the participant’s enemy. In other words, participants liked a researcher more when the researcher punished an assistant who had previously treated the participant badly. This was in spite of participants having no knowledge about what attitudes or beliefs the researcher held; they liked the researcher more simply because they had punished the participant’s enemy.

So, the next time you find yourself reading about Jennifer Aniston’s latest relationship woes or bad hair-day, rest assured that she is probably making herself feel better by blaming it all on her nemesis Angelina Jolie. That, or seeking support from Angelina’s ex, Billy Bob Thornton—the enemy of Aniston’s enemy.

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed.

1Sullivan, D., Landau, M. J., & Rothschild, Z. K. (2010). An existential function of enemyship: Evidence that people attribute influence to personal and political enemies to compensate for threats to control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology98, 434-449.

2Aronson, E., & Cope, V. (1968). My enemy’s enemy is my friend. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology8, 8-12.

John Sakaluk - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV

John is interested in experimental existential psychology, sexual health, cultural scripts, double standards, and other sexual attitudes. He relies on theories such as attachment, terror management, and conceptual metaphor, while researching topics such as condom use and sexual strategies.

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