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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Why a Keeping Up with the Kardashians cartoon would make genuinely brilliant TV

The Kardashians are their own greatest satirists.

You’ve seen Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Kourtney and Kim Take Kyoto, and Kylie and Kendall Klarify Kommunications Kontracts, but the latest Kardashian show might take a step away from reality. Yes, Kartoon Kardashians could be on the way. According to TMZ, an animated cartoon is the next Kardashian television property we can expect: the gossip website reports that Kris Jenner saw Harvey Weinstein’s L.A. production company earlier this month for a pitch meeting.

It’s easy to imagine the dramas the animated counterparts of the Kardashians might have: arguments over who gets the last clear plastic salad bowl? Moral dilemmas over whether or not to wear something other than Balenciaga to a high profile fashion event? Outrage over the perceived betrayals committed by their artisanal baker?

If this gives you déjà vu, it might be because of a video that went viral over a year ago made using The Sims: a blisteringly accurate parody of Keeping Up with the Kardashians that sees the three sisters have a melodramatic argument about soda.

It’s hysterical because it clings onto the characteristics of the show: scenes opening with utter banalities, sudden dramatic music coinciding with close-ups of each family member’s expressions, a bizarre number of shots of people who aren’t speaking, present tense confessionals, Kim’s ability to do an emotional 0-60, and Kourtney’s monotonous delivery.

But if the Kardashians, both as a reality TV show and celebrity figures, are ripe for ridicule, no one is more aware of it than the family themselves. They’ve shared teasing memes and posted their own self-referential jokes on their social channels, while Kim’s Kimoji app turned mocking viral pictures into self-depreciating in-jokes for her fans. And the show itself has a level of self-awareness often misinterpreted as earnestness - how else could this moment of pure cinema have made it to screen?

The Kardashians are their own greatest satirists, and they’ve perfected the art of making fun of themselves before anyone else can. So there’s a good chance that this new cartoon won’t be a million miles away from “Soda Drama”. It might even be brilliant.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.