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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Leader: Mark Carney — a rock star banker feels the heat

Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith.

On 24 June, the day after the EU referendum, the United Kingdom resembled a leaderless state. David Cameron promptly resigned as prime minister after his humiliating defeat. His closest ally, George Osborne, retreated to the safety and silence of the Treasury. Labour descended into open warfare; meanwhile, the leaders of the Leave campaign appeared terrified by the challenge confronting them and were already plotting and scheming against one another.

The government had not planned for Brexit, and so one of the few remaining sources of authority was the independent Bank of England. Its Canadian governor, the former Goldman Sachs banker Mark Carney, provided calm by announcing that Threadneedle Street had performed “extensive contingency planning” and would not “hesitate to take additional measures”. A month later, the Bank cut interest rates to a ­record low of 0.25 per cent and announced an additional £60bn of quantitative easing (QE). Both measures helped to avert the threat of an immediate recession by stimulating growth and employment.

Since then the Bank of England governor, who this week gave evidence on monetary policy to the economic affairs committee at the House of Lords, has become a favoured target of Brexiteers and former politicians. Michael Gove has compared Mr Carney to a vainglorious Chinese emperor and chided him for his lack of “humility”. William Hague has accused the Bank of having “lost the plot” and has questioned its future independence. Nigel Lawson has called for Mr Carney to resign, declaring that he has “behaved disgracefully”.

At no point since the Bank achieved independence under the New Labour government in 1997 has it attracted such opprobrium. For politicians faced with the risk, and the reality, of economic instability, Mr Carney and his colleagues are an easy target. However, they are the wrong one.

The consequences of loose monetary policy are not wholly benign. Ultra-low rates and QE have widened inequality by enriching asset-holders, while punishing savers. Yet the economy’s sustained weakness as well as poor productivity have necessitated such action. As Mr Osborne consistently recognised when he was chancellor, monetary activism was the inevitable corollary of fiscal conservatism. Without the Bank’s interventionism, government austerity would have had even harsher consequences.

The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly taken the opportunity to “reset” fiscal policy. He has abandoned Mr Osborne’s absurd target of seeking to achieve a budget surplus by 2020 and has promised new infrastructure investment in his Autumn Statement on 23 November.

After years of over-reliance on monetary stimulus, a rebalancing is, in our view, necessary. Squeezed living standards (inflation is forecast to reach 3 per cent next year, given the collapse in the value of sterling) and anaemic growth are best addressed through government action rather than a premature rise in interest rates. Though UK gilt yields have risen in recent weeks, borrowing costs remain at near-record lows. Mr Hammond should not hesitate to borrow to invest, as Keynesians have long argued.

The Bank of England is far from infallible, of course. In recent years, its growth and employment forecasts have proved overly pessimistic. Mr Carney’s immediate predecessor, Mervyn King, was too slow to cut rates at the start of the financial crisis and was ill-prepared for the recession that followed. Central bankers across the developed world, most notably the former Federal Reserve head Alan Greenspan, have too often been treated as seers beyond criticism. Their reputations have suffered as a consequence.

Yet the principle of central bank independence remains one worthy of defence. Labour’s 1997 decision ended the manipulation of interest rates by opportunistic politicians and enhanced economic stability. Although the Bank’s mandate is determined by ministers, it must be free to set monetary policy without fear of interference. The challenge of delivering Brexit is the greatest any British government has faced since 1945. Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith on this epic task.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage