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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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times