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

Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood