Brain scans betray our joy in others’ suffering
and World Science staff
Researchers say they’ve captured the first pictures of the brain activity that accompanies “Schadenfreude”—the feeling of satisfaction we get if someone we dislike suffers.
Fairness of social interactions has a key role in shaping empathic responses to people, according to the study, published online this week by the research journal Nature.
Tania Singer and colleagues at the University College London, London, said they showed in the study that both women and men empathize with the pain of people they perceive as cooperative types.
But among men, at least, that empathy disappears if they see someone else behaving selfishly. Then, they may even feel good if the other person receives physical pain.
The researchers engaged male and female volunteers in a money game, in which two players were actually actors who played “fairly” or “unfairly.” The scientists measured brain activity while these same volunteers watched the players receiving electric shocks.
In the case of the “fair” player, brain areas associated in previous studies with empathy lit up in people observing the punishment, the researchers found. But when the punishment went to the “unfair” player, this brain area lit up significantly less in male observers.
“This effect was accompanied by increased activation in reward-related areas, correlated with an expressed desire for revenge,” the researchers wrote. These reward areas include regions called the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens.
“We conclude that in men (at least) empathic responses are shaped by valuation of other people’s social behaviour, such that they empathize with fair opponents while favouring the physical punishment of unfair opponents.”
The finding echoes recent evidence for “altruistic punishment,” they wrote, the idea that social cooperation evolved partly because some people are willing to punish cheaters at a cost to themselves.
The game consisted of having a player voluntarily hand over money to another player. The amount of money was then tripled while in the other player’s possession, and the other player could choose whether to return some of it to the first player or not. The “fair” player was the one who returned some generous portion of the money, whereas the “unfair” one gave little back.
The Germans have a well-known word for taking pleasure from someone else’s pain: schadenfreude, from Schaden (harm) and Freude (joy).
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