The science of getting your own back

Martha Gill's "Irrational Animals" column.

There’s a fantastic scene at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s film Death Proof. Three young girls are being hunted by Kurt Russell, a psychopath with a stunt car and a foot fetish. We have watched him torture and kill his way through the film, and, as he wends his way towards this group, their naivete is used as a foil to his ever increasing menace. In the last three minutes they beat him to death with an iron pole. It’s a great ending.

Outside Hollywood, the idea of revenge is often pushed into the background, especially when explaining our motives. We call it “justice” or “righting a wrong” or “balancing the scales”, but these notions don’t do much for us biologically, and don’t show up in an obvious way in the brain (it’s a grey area). Revenge, on the other hand, has a very clear neural signal, and that signal is pleasure.

A classic psychology scenario - the prisoner's dilemma - can be combined with neuroimaging to show this quite clearly. In the dilemma, two people have committed a crime and are being held in separate cells. They can either confess and get a reasonable sentence or blame the other, and get a light one. If both blame the other, though, they get the longest sentence of all.

In a study published in 2006, by Tania Singer at UCL, researchers asked two “prisoners” to play this out in front of an audience. Then members of the audience were then put inside fMRI machines while they witnessed each prisoner receiving electric shocks to his hands. As they watched, they showed increased activity in neural pain areas – evidence of empathy. Surprisingly, though, this empathy was present only when watching one of the “silent partners”. If a “confessor” was punished, the activity died down considerably. It looked like the brain cared much less about the pain of those who had betrayed their partner.

There was another finding that Singer didn’t expect. Watching “bad” prisoners get punished gave members of the audience pleasure: there was activation in reward-related areas of the brain, such as the ventral striatum and the nucleus accumbens. (This was limited to male subjects.)

So, we - or at least the men among us - get pleasure from revenge. According to similar studies, we also get activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, which relates to goal planning. Revenge, then, seems to be not only a passing delight, but a craving, something we need, that we plan for. The desire increases when we are mistreated in front of others – we need to show people we’re not to be pushed around – and decreases when we’ve got more to lose by exacting it. In other words, the emotion has a logic to it.

Does it have an evolutionary function? Literature is littered with sayings about revenge and how it never pays, or is better expressed by forgiving the other person, or is exacted by “living well” (with gritted teeth). Yet our neurobiology feels otherwise. Which is right?

Well, let’s return to the prisoner’s dilemma. The dilemma itself is whether or not to trust your partner, but this issue figures only in the beginning. As the game plays out, round after round, prisoners seek petty revenge on each other, punishing the other for betraying them. Eventually, burned out, the two settle on a compromise. And this may be the lesson. Fear of retribution keeps us behaving fairly to others, making co-operation possible. This is why we love watching people get their comeuppance in Singer's test, and why we love watching Quentin Tarantino's films. Revenge is a sweet necessity.

Actress Emily Vancamp from the US drama Revenge. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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