November 08, 2008
Brain Scans Show Bullies Enjoy Seeing Others Suffer

Okay puppets, who among you are sadists? Some people are wired up with a puppeteer in their brains that makes them enjoy seeing pain in others. Sadists are wired up to be sadists.

Unusually aggressive youth may actually enjoy inflicting pain on others, research using brain scans at the University of Chicago shows.

Scans of the aggressive youth's brains showed that an area that is associated with rewards was highlighted when the youth watched a video clip of someone inflicting pain on another person. Youth without the unusually aggressive behavior did not have that response, the study showed.

"This is the first time that fMRI scans have been used to study situations that could otherwise provoke empathy," said Jean Decety, Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago. "This work will help us better understand ways to work with juveniles inclined to aggression and violence."

Some kids are just bad to the bone. Once it becomes possible to precisely identify such kids I expect some private schools to reject them as applicants. Though in some jurisdictions governments will try to prevent the screening out of bullies.

The youth were tested with fMRI while looking at video clips in which people endured pain accidentally, such as when a heavy bowl was dropped on their hands, and intentionally, such as when a person stepped on another's foot.

"The aggressive youth activated the neural circuits underpinning pain processing to the same extent, and in some cases, even more so than the control participants without conduct disorder," Decety said.

"Aggressive adolescents showed a specific and very strong activation of the amygdala and ventral striatum (an area that responds to feeling rewarded) when watching pain inflicted on others, which suggested that they enjoyed watching pain," he said.

Unlike the control group, the youth with conduct disorder did not activate the area of the brain involved in self-regulation (the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction).

I bet people who have committed murder are more likely to show this brain activation pattern than law-abiding people. So them could brain implants be devised that will block these feelings of pleasure from pain?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 November 08 05:22 PM  Brain Violence

Xenophon Hendrix said at November 9, 2008 8:04 AM:

My guess is that we are going to find that a strong majority of the population has something that is conventionally considered to be "off" as a property of their brains. I also suspect that upon further consideration, most of these properties won't actually be things that are absolutely harmful, but rather adaptive trade-offs.

Also, supposing that it is true that bullies enjoy seeing persons suffer, is it necessarily true that people who enjoy seeing suffering are bullies? For example, I remember a passing remark in one of Heinlein's novels about surgeons often being persons who have learned to channel sadistic impulses into a socially acceptable outlet. I don't know if it's true or not, but it certainly interesting speculation.

Nick G said at November 9, 2008 9:56 AM:

"Sadists are wired up to be sadists."

We already knew that bullies hurt people. Now we can see that this behavior has a correlate in their brains.

We already know that our behavior is directed by our brains - why is another confirmation of this an indication of reduced free will?

Randall Parker said at November 9, 2008 10:01 AM:


As for what is conventionally considered to be "off": There's no real center of consensus. People who, for example, lean Left due to genetic reasons and those who lean Right for genetic reasons aren't going to agree on what is "off" and what is deviant. Each will think their genetic leanings are unbiased and people with other genetically caused leanings are the deviants.

Harmful or adaptive: There's no solid consensus on what constitutes adaptive. By what measure? How much a person helps others? How much money a person makes? How much they advance science and technology? How well they can survive in the wilderness?

Socially acceptable bullying: My guess is that some of that isn't very pleasant. Take a boss that likes to push people hard under the pretense of getting them to work harder but who really just enjoys making life difficult for others. Maybe some such bosses boost productivity. But I bet others do not and some lower productivity and drive away good employees.

Sure, some find ways to constructively channel sadism or psychopathy (e.g. I bet some CEOs do). But my guess is they are exceptions.

Randall Parker said at November 9, 2008 10:03 AM:

Nick G,

What is free will?

My take: every piece of evidence for a physical mechanism causing differences in behavior narrows the scope of free will. This study isn't a strong toward that end as others I report on because in this study we do not see the ultimate causes of the differences in brain activation patterns. Whereas genetic studies of behavioral differences strike me as stronger evidence for reduced free will because we trace back the cognitive differences to their causes.

Nick G said at November 9, 2008 11:13 AM:

"every piece of evidence for a physical mechanism causing differences in behavior narrows the scope of free will. "


We agree that all behavior is caused by physical mechanisms, right? So, do you feel that free will is an illusion, and that evidence of this sort simply helps people to understand that?

My best guess is that human behavior is not random, but is determined by nature and nurture, and that free will is a description of how we feel when we are functioning at our highest level (i.e., pre-frontal cortex not impaired by illness, addiction, emotional stress/trauma, etc).

Svigor said at November 11, 2008 6:32 PM:

Once it becomes possible to precisely identify such kids I expect some private schools to reject them as applicants.

And between now and then, how will "disparate impact" be done away with?

Doug62 said at March 26, 2010 10:07 AM:

I often wonder why I am the only one who suspects that this human male brain response is the probable reason for all cruelty inflicted past and present. If you accept the possibility that the human brain is largely unexplored and there may be a "satiation" or pleasure center response when certain males are violent, then all the BS happening (from murder to domestic violence) could be better understood and controlled.
But no, we all just continue to pay the high priced phsychologists to discuss with the pundits about violence theories that don't work. We think its OK to discuss ad nauseum the "reasons" for the Chicago youth murders and torture in war. We continue along the idiotic pathway of turning over our own personal responsibilities to our "gods" and our "scriptures".
Someday (soon I hope) we will understand that male cruelty is prevelant because there are so many "excuses" or "reasons" for mean human behavior. Territory, jealousy, revenge, war serve cruel minded males well. It doesn't take much for me to look deeper and see thug males unknowingly self pleasuring themselves at the horrific expense of others.
We've done this for 200,000 years. We had to murder until now. It has been survival of the fittest. It has been survival of the best killers. It needs to stop now but won't because nobody wants to admit that their forefathers were the best murderers and thats why they survived.
Especially noteworthy was Atilla the Hun. His peoples bound the head with cloth squishing development of the frontal lobe. It doesn't surprise me on bit that he was so very cruel and murderous. No checks and balances in that boy's brain huh?
Its frustrating to me that I cannot find others who share my suspicion. From the public beheadings in Saudi Arabia for "sorcery" to the droning of Arabs, I see many males who do not realize that they are self pleasuring and carrying on a primitive, seductive and biological tradition that can no longer serve us well.

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