Men Like to See Cheaters Suffer, Brain Study Shows

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
January 19, 2006

We might not like to admit it, but many of us like to watch villians suffer. Now scientists say they've found a way to map brain activity that proves our desire for revenge.

Specifically, the researchers have identified brain activities associated with empathy. Brain images from a group of volunteers reveal that men and women empathize with good people when they suffer.

But while women also emphasize when dishonest people feel pain, men show no empathy at all for those they feel deserve to be punished.

What's more, the study shows that men seem to enjoy watching cheaters get physically punished.

The study authors believe their results offer neuroscientific evidence for schadenfreude, the term for a feeling of satisfaction or delight gained because of others' misfortune.

Plays Well With Others

Tania Singer and colleagues at University College London's Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience asked 32 volunteers and 2 actors to play an economic game.

The scientists monitored the players' brain activities throughout the exercise.

One actor was asked to play fairly and deal fairly with competitors. Another was instructed to be selfish and dishonest.

Both the fair and unfair actors were subjected to painful electric shocks during the game so that scientists could study the reaction of the test subjects playing with them.

The images show that men and women identified with the fair player who was subjected to pain.

"Men and women showed empathic brain responses in the areas that process their own pain," Singer said. "They did this when they saw someone they liked in pain—even if they had just a brief association with that person."

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