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STUDY: Retaliating Against a ‘Virtual VooDoo Doll’ of One’s Boss Improves Psychological Well Being

According to a recent study, workers are happier and perform better on cognitive tests after abusing a voodoo-doll likeness of their boss.
voodoo doll, voodoo doll boss, abusing a voodoo doll of your boss, employee therapy

Voodoo dolls on display in a museum on March 4, 2013. (Claudia Brook/Flickr)

Has your boss ever asked you to stay late? Take over someone else’s project? Or make do with an impossibly small budget? Have you at times fantasized about creating a voodoo doll in their likeness?

As it turns out, science says that’s exactly what you should be doing.

According to a study published in February in The Leadership Quarterly, a couple hundred full-time employees in the U.S. and Canada who had felt wronged or mistreated by their supervisors were asked to complete a cognitive test. First, however, one group was asked to visualize the incident and then abuse an online effigy of their boss. The workers poked the voodoo doll with pins, burned it with a candle and pinched it with pliers.

As the study reports, the participants who took their frustrations out on the online voodoo doll not only felt “lower feelings of injustice” and were “far less likely to still feel bitter” about their boss; they also performed better on the cognitive test. Similar results were found in a follow-up study performed with business-school students who had some work experience.

“We wanted to see, rather than actually retaliating against the abusive boss, whether mistreated employees could benefit from harmless acts of symbolic retaliation,” study author Dr. Lindie Liang, of Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, told The Telegraph.

The findings probably would not surprise most psychologists, as many studies over the years have found that the No. 1 contributor to human happiness is a sense of autonomy, or the belief that one has some control over one’s life.

“When a subordinate receives abusive treatment from a supervisor, a natural response is to retaliate against the supervisor,” reads the Leadership Quarterly study. “Although retaliation is dysfunctional and should be discouraged, we examine the potential functional role retaliation plays in terms of alleviating the negative consequences of abusive supervision on subordinate justice perceptions.”

Even if burning an effigy of the boss with a candle doesn’t have as direct an effect as, say, telling the boss exactly how they feel, the ritual itself can still help individuals feel they’ve exacted revenge, thus contributing to their internal sense of control.

“As weird as it sounds…,” Liang told The Telegraph,  “we found a simple and harmless symbolic act of retaliation can make people feel like they’re getting even and restoring their sense of fairness. It may not have to be a voodoo doll per se: theoretically anything that serves as a symbolic act of retaliation, like throwing darts at a picture of your boss, might work. Symbolically retaliating against an abusive boss can benefit employees psychologically by allowing them to restore their sense of justice in the workplace.”

Looking to enact some safe revenge? The study participants used the “Virtual Voodoo Doll” on Dumb.com, but physical versions abound on Etsy.com, with many vendors able to include an actual photo of your boss’s face, or specific details like a tie or custom hairdo.

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  • Kat Merck is a freelance writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. An amateur naturalist who stud... keep reading

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