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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era