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Bullies Take Pleasure in Others’ Pain

Bullies Take Pleasure in Others’ PainAccording to new research, the belief that bullies lash out at others to make themselves feel better may have some truth to it.

Researchers at the University of Chicago found in the new research that un­u­su­ally ag­gres­sive youth may actually gain some enjoyment from in­flict­ing pain.

Vid­eos of peo­ple get­ting hurt were found to trig­ger flur­ries of ac­ti­vity in a brain ar­ea associted with re­ward in ag­gres­sive youth, the researchers said. Non-aggressive teens had no such brain activity. The researchers measured brain activity using a common brain scanning technique called fMRI.

For ag­gres­sive ad­o­les­cents, see­ing some­one in pain trig­gered strong ac­tiva­t­ion in a brain ar­ea called the ven­tral stria­tum, which re­sponds to pleas­ur­a­ble events, re­search­ers said.

The re­search shows some ag­gres­sive youths’ nat­u­ral em­pa­thet­ic im­pulse may be dis­rupted, said the uni­ver­s­ity’s Jean De­cety, who led the re­search. “This work will help us bet­ter understand ways to work with ju­ve­niles in­clined to ag­gres­sion and vi­o­lence,” he added.

The sci­en­tists com­pared ad­o­les­cent boys with no un­usu­al signs of ag­gres­sion to eight 16- to 18-year-old boys who had shown dis­rup­tive be­hav­ior, such as start­ing a fight, us­ing a weapon or steal­ing af­ter con­fronting a vic­tim.

Par­ti­ci­pants un­der­went brain scans while watch­ing videos of peo­ple hav­ing their foot stepped on, hav­ing a heavy bowl fall on their hands, or the like. The scan­ning sys­tem was of a widely used type known as func­tion­al Mag­net­ic Res­o­nance Im­ag­ing (fMRI), which meas­ures brain ac­ti­vity based on where blood is flow­ing.

Ag­gres­sive ad­o­les­cents showed a “spe­cific and very strong ac­tiva­t­ion” in a brain ar­ea called the ven­tral stria­tum, known from pre­vi­ous stud­ies to re­spond to pleas­ur­a­ble events, De­cety said. Un­like the con­trol group, he added, the more ag­gres­sive youth did­n’t ac­tivate brain areas in­volved in self-con­trol, called the me­di­al pre­fron­tal cor­tex and the tem­poropari­etal junction.

The more nor­mal youth, De­cety said, acted si­m­i­larly to youth in a study re­leased ear­li­er this year, in which his group used scans to show 7- to 12-year-olds are nat­u­rally em­pa­thet­ic toward peo­ple in pain. The scans showed that when the chil­dren saw an­i­ma­t­ions of some­one get hurt, the same part of the brain that reg­istered pain when they hurt be­came ac­tive up­on see­ing some­one else hurt, he ex­plained. When they saw some­one in­ten­tion­ally hurt, the part of the brain as­so­ci­at­ed with un­der­standing so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and mor­al rea­soning be­came active.

The find­ings are re­ported in the cur­rent is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Bi­o­log­i­cal Psychology.

Source: University of Chicago

Bullies Take Pleasure in Others’ Pain

Psych Central News Editor

APA Reference
News Editor, P. (2018). Bullies Take Pleasure in Others’ Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2019, from
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Last updated: 8 Aug 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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