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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Commons confidential: Putting on the Ritz

Turns out, the young ’uns give even thirsty MPs a bad name.

Smoking is banned in enclosed workplaces including hotel bars and reception rooms but the prohibitions are, in the finest Leona Helmsley tradition, for the little people rather than the Pol Roger Brexit elites. The one-time City speculator Nigel Farage and the gruesome gathering of tycoons untroubled by the costs of an EU exit were, a witness informed me, puffing away on fags at the glitzy anti-establishment establishment bash at the Ritz on the night that a £59bn Brexit bill was presented to the nation.

The backslapping soirée was hosted by the billionaire twins Sirs David and Frederick Barclay, the mock-Gothic-castle-owning habitués of tax havens and proprietors of the five-star Piccadilly boarding house. My snout recalled how Freddie announced ever so grandly: “This is my house and people can smoke if they want to.” I trust that Fred’s hostel is well versed in the smoking ban law.

Jeremy Corbyn’s reincarnated chief whip, Nick “Newcastle” Brown, believes that he is the first Labour bigwig since Arthur Henderson to hold the same party post multiple times in three decades. Brown did the enforcer’s job for Tony Blair in 1997-98, Gordon Brown in 2008-10, Harriet Harman in 2010 and now Jezza in 2016. Uncle Arthur was Labour’s chief whip in 1906-1907, in 1914, in 1920-24 and in 1925-27. Tickled to learn that Henderson was awarded the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize, Newkie Brown was overheard musing: “Perhaps they’ll give it to me if I bring peace to the Parliamentary Labour Party.” Do that, and he’d be invited to run the UN.

The charm of Justin Madders is the shadow health minister’s easygoing nature. Which is probably just as well. The agreeable Ellesmere Port MP and former lawyer received a thank you note and photograph after attending a cancer charity’s event. The picture was of Tories. A high-profile Corbynista could learn from the mild Madders. She asked a paper to use only flattering snaps of her.

I may start an occasional series on jobs that haunt MPs decades after they made it to Westminster, after the shadow cabinet member Teresa Pearce recalled her experiences as a gym receptionist in the days before Lycra was fashionable. “I did it to get free gym use,” explained the Erith MP, “but I also had to clean and monitor the sauna on naked pensioner Tuesdays, so it was not worth the grim sights I had to witness.” Some things once glimpsed can never be unseen.

Westminster staff whisper that empty Tesco wine bottles have been found on the terrace. The finger of suspicion points at drunk and disorderly young researchers, particularly Tories, preloading before piling into the bars. The young ’uns give even thirsty MPs a bad name.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor(politics) of the  Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage