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

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder