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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A Lord’s Test match is a wonderful social event – not least because of who shows up for interview

My week, including an invitation to Mrs May, grilling a top copper, and the unity of Miliband and Farage.

The harrowing details of the terrorist atrocity in Nice made for a difficult listen. The atmosphere in the media centre at Lord’s that morning as we gathered for the second day of the Test match against Pakistan was muted and sombre; cricket really was the last thing on our minds.

However, there was no avoiding play starting at 11 o’clock, and that I would be on air welcoming listeners to Lord’s. How to get the balance and the tone right at such a time? Bright and breezy in a “life goes on” sort of a way? Or stunned, angry and confused, reflecting the true mood of all of us? Is sport a welcome distraction at times like this, or merely a triviality?

 

Do or Di

Unfortunately, this was familiar territory. Last November I welcomed BBC Radio 4 listeners to a relatively meaningless one-day international against Pakistan in Sharjah immediately after a graphic report on the Paris terror attacks, which had taken place the previous day. If I am honest, that occasion, thousands of miles from home, felt awkward and difficult to justify. I scripted a very straightforward and safe opening line or two, and comforted myself by recognising that, despite the horror in Paris, we were still playing cricket against a team of Muslims in the United Arab Emirates.

But my most difficult broadcast was on the afternoon of 31 August 1997. With the world in a state of shock, and moments ­after Princess Diana’s body was repatriated to RAF Northolt, BBC2 broke away with the solemn announcement: “Now cricket. Here’s Jonathan Agnew . . .”

 

Let ’em eat cake

Theresa May’s succession as Prime Minister continues the healthy connection between politicians and cricket. So far I have interviewed three presidents (Mandela, Mbeki and Musharraf), four prime ministers (Major, Cameron, John Howard of Australia and Gaston Browne of Antigua) and many other senior political figures. I am hopeful we can entice Mrs May, who watches her cricket at the Oval, to visit us next summer.

If my gentle persuasion is not enough, we can surely rely on Geoffrey Boycott’s less subtle approach. Mrs May has already surprised a few by revealing herself to be a fan of the greatest living Yorkshireman, and even delivered a cake to him when she visited Headingley last summer.

 

Be my guest

A Lord’s Test match is a wonderful social event, which gives me the chance to interview a wide variety of well-known personalities on Test Match Special. Last week’s victims ranged from Harry Potter’s Weasley twins to Britain’s most jubilant mum, the effervescent Judy Murray. Then Michael Parkinson turned the tables on me with an ambushed interview to celebrate my 25 years as BBC cricket correspondent. Wonderful memories.

The rock star Alice Cooper must rate as my most unlikely Lord’s guest (Boycott shook Mrs Cooper’s hand in the honest belief that she must have been Alice), while John Stevens of Scotland Yard gave me my best scoop. After meticulously sidestepping everything John Humphrys could throw at him that morning, Sir John arrived at Lord’s for his lunchtime date with me. Fuelled by a glass of champagne and with the band of the Grenadier Guards playing on the hallowed turf, he carefully considered my question, identical to the one he had faced on the Today programme that morning, about the number of terrorist threats on London that had been thwarted by the Met. “Eight,” he replied. And then, as every mobile phone in the media centre instantly burst into life, he quietly slipped away on holiday.

 

Bowled over

I remain in contact with many of our guests and could not avoid a chuckle when, within seconds of each other, texts arrived from Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband. It probably will not be appreciated by either of them, but they are in fact united, albeit through cricket. Farage was wearing a Primary Club tie as he celebrated his victory in a private box in the Mound Stand. Supporting cricket for the blind and partially sighted, the Primary Club is open to all those who have been dismissed first ball in any form of cricket, and the tie is adorned with shattered stumps and flying bails.

Clean bowled! The referendum claimed more than its share of those.

 

Golden glory

So to the Rio Olympics, and specifically equestrianism. Yes, it is an unlikely assignment, earned more through my wife owning a horse rather than any personal involvement, but I am taking my duties seriously and have been learning how to ride – more seriously, it seems, than the world’s top golfers who, one by one, are pulling out, citing concerns about the zika virus.

Twenty-two male golfers have withdrawn so far, including the top four in the world, confirming for many that to include mainstream, professional sports such as golf
and tennis in the Olympics was a mistake. These are highly paid sportsmen on a constant global treadmill and used to playing for serious prize money. Rory McIlroy appeared to speak for many of them before the Open when he confirmed that golfers are not bothered about the Olympics.

Whatever the reason for so many pulling out, the integrity of golf as an Olympic sport has been irreparably damaged. Not only that, but I suspect it has also done for cricket’s ambition to join the fold, which has been its aim. Perhaps it is for the best. In my equestrian circle, five of the eight members of the dressage and eventing teams are female; women are thought to be more vulnerable to the zika mozzie than men. Yet for them, as for most athletes, Rio  can’t come soon enough to fulfil their lifelong dreams of winning not money, but an Olympic medal.

Jonathan Agnew is the BBC’s cricket correspondent and a presenter of BBC Radio’s Test Match Special

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt