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Happiness at Work is a Voodoo Doll of Your Boss

No joke, according to a new study

There’s a seemingly endless number of reasons you might want to hurt your boss. Maybe they gave you more work without any extra compensation? Maybe they text you at all hours of the night, including weekends? Maybe they just called you an asshole? Whatever the reason may be, anyone who’s ever worked for someone else has at some point or another imagined what it might be like to go Jigsaw on them.

Here’s some good news then: Now you can!

Sort of.

According to a new study from the Lazaridis School of Business and Economics at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, sticking needles in a voodoo doll that resembles your boss will make you happier.

In the study, researchers asked 229 participants to think of an interaction they’d had in the workplace with one one of their supervisors that involved abuse. Some of the participants were allowed to take out their aggression on voodoo dolls with their boss’s name on it — not just squeezing it, but acts of outright sadism, including sticking it with pins, burning it with candles and pulling its eyes out with pliers, according to the Washington Post.

How’s that for some Jigsaw shit?

Researchers found that a third of the study’s participants reported “lower feelings of injustice” afterward, and said they were “far less likely to still feel bitter” about their supervisor.

But the sadistic joy doesn’t stop there: Some of the participants also performed better on cognitive tests as well.

To find out what inspired this bizarre but seemingly instructive experiment — and whether supervisors everywhere should be worried — I spoke to Lindie Liang, one of the study’s authors.

What made you decide to investigate this?
My main research area is leadership — in particular, dysfunctional leader behaviors, or abusive supervision, such as humiliating and ridiculing employees. Such dysfunctional leader behavior is a serious problem in the workplace, and I’ve done a lot of work to understand the causes and consequences.

Based on my past research, we know that people retaliate against their abusive bosses even though they know it’s not good for them, so we wanted to understand what function retaliation might serve, given that it’s potentially a detrimental behavior.

And what inspired the voodoo doll approach?
We came across the voodoo doll paradigm in 2014, when an article was published examining aggression within a married couple. The way they assessed aggression was by using a voodoo doll paradigm.

The following is the passage Liang cites from the article:

“To obtain daily measures of aggressive inclinations toward their partner, each participant received a voodoo doll along with 51 pins, and was told: ‘This doll represents your spouse. At the end of each day, for 21 consecutive days, insert between 0 and 51 pins in the doll, depending how angry you are with your spouse. You will do this alone, without your spouse being present.’ Participants recorded the number of pins they stuck into the voodoo doll. Previous research has shown that this procedure is a valid way to measure aggressive inclinations in couples.”

At the time, we were looking for a way to experimentally manipulate retaliation to uncover the function of retaliation following abusive supervision. We thought the voodoo doll paradigm could be a convenient tool for us to manipulate the basic psychological process — retaliation, without actually harming anyone.

Why do you think it works?
Simply put, after employees inserted needles into the voodoo doll, they felt like they’d retaliated against their boss, that they’d got even. [It] serves as proxy for retaliation. Our theory is that it serves the function of restoring employee justice perceptions.

Wouldn’t a stress ball work just as well?
Theoretically, anything that serves as a symbolic act of retaliation could work.

I’d like to add that, although most people who hear about our study find the voodoo doll element most fascinating, we weren’t actually interested in researching the effectiveness of voodoo dolls in particular.

Do you have any concerns about people relieving their aggression by sticking needles in a voodoo doll of their boss? That people might be encouraged to act it out for real?
No. If supervisors are worried that their employees may have a voodoo doll that resembles their boss, those supervisors should probably take a good look at how they treat their employees.