Bullies Enjoy Seeing Someone Else In Pain
A new study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reports bullies may enjoy seeing someone else in pain. Dr. Benjamin Lahey, a psychologist at the University of Chicago was the lead researcher in a study published in Biological Psychology. By watching the brain scans as teens viewed others getting hurt, they saw changes that showed they got pleasure out of seeing pain inflicted on another person.
The researchers looked at eight boys ages 16 to 18 with serious aggression and compared them to a group of eight boys with no unusual signs of aggression. The boys with the diagnosis of aggressive conduct disorder had previously exhibited aggressive behavior such as picking a fight, using a weapon or stealing.
After showing both groups of adolescents video clips of someone inflicting pain on another person, they tracked their brain activity with fMRI. The groups were shown a series of brief videos that showed painful situations, such as a hammer dropped on a toe or a piano lid deliberately closed on a player’s fingers. The fMRI showed activity in the pleasure and pain related areas of the brain in the bullying group. They also showed that a portion of the brain that helps regulate emotion was inactive in bullies.
The lack of response in those parts of the brain may mean bullies lack a mechanism to keep themselves in check when they are accidentally shoved or when they perceive a threat.
The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for processing emotional reactions. When the control subjects were shown something painful, they respond with negative emotions and activation of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
The aggressive kids showed brain activity in the amygdala and the ventral straitum, which is the area of the brain associated with pleasure and rewards, which include food, sex and drug use.
“We will have to develop therapies to either treat or compensate for this lack of self-regulation that we think is there and the fact that it may be positively reinforcing every time they hurt somebody,” Lahey said.
Aggressive conduct disorder is not a common disorder and it affects 1 to 4% of preteens and teens in the United States. It is more common in boys than girls and it is associated with very poor psychosocial outcomes. There may be some future benefit to using fMRI in young children with aggressive behavior and see if there is activity in the ventral straitum and amygdala. Early intervention and therapy might be possible to help prevent conduct disorder before it fully develops.