Pain Pleasurable for Some Bullies

By | November 8, 2008

Brain Scans Show Bullies Enjoy Others’ Pain

Brain scans of subjects with conduct disorder show activity in the ventral striatum — the brain’s pleasure center — when shown images of people getting hurt.


There may be some truth to the notion that bullies make other people feel bad to make themselves feel better.

A new study published in the journal Biological Psychology used fMRI scans to compare brain activity in eight unusually aggressive 16- to 18-year-old males to those of eight normal adolescent males while they watched videos of people getting hurt.

While both groups showed activity in the brain’s pain centers, the brains of aggressive males, those with conduct disorder, also showed activity in the brain’s pleasure centers, suggesting that they may have been enjoying what they were seeing. Normal males showed no such activity.

… the kids with conduct disorder showed brain activity in the amygdala and the ventral striatum, which is the area of the brain associated with pleasure and rewards, which include food, sex and drug use.  …

Using aggressiveness to gain something tangible such as social approval versus personal reward is an important distinction between a regular bully and someone with conduct disorder. Indeed, aggressiveness can be channeled constructively to allow a neurotypical person to excel later in life, in business or athletics, for example.

… Is bullying a learned behavior, creating pathways in the brain that lead to conduct disorder, or is conduct disorder inherent and results in aggressive behavior?

… Early intervention and therapy may help reprogram the brain circuitry in a way that could help prevent conduct disorder, or at least keep it under control. – abc

Authoritarians are probably hard wired, then. Interesting. This is from Bob Altemeyer’s – The Authoritarians:

“They are highly submissive to established authority, aggressive in the name of that authority, and conventional to the point of insisting everyone should behave as their authorities decide. They are fearful and self-righteous and have a lot of hostility in them that they readily direct toward various out-groups. They are easily incited, easily led, rather un-inclined to think for themselves, largely impervious to facts and reason, and rely instead on social support to maintain their beliefs. … they are also Teflon-coated when it comes to guilt. … They can be woefully uninformed about things they oppose, but they prefer ignorance and want to make others become as ignorant as they. … ” [p 147]

I’m not sure descriptions like this are of value, because everyone exhibits some of these traits from time to time. Here is another take on the Authoritarian personality type:

The authoritarian personality is an influential theory of personality developed by University of California at Berkeley psychologists … The personality type is defined by nine traits that were believed to cluster together as the result of psychodynamic, childhood experiences. These traits are conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression. – wiki

The first three traits are correlated. The Germans have a word: schadenfreude.

The term “schadenfreude” is often mentioned in connection with the Internet slang terms, “lulz” and “FAIL.” These terms have slightly different meanings, however. The interjection “FAIL” is used to express and share public derision.[14] A recent NY Times article defines “Lulz” as how trolls keep score. A corruption of “LOL” or “laugh out loud,” “‘lulz” means the joy of disrupting another’s emotional equilibrium. [15] … “schadenfreude,” however, as a pleasurable emotion resulting from the misfortune of others, with no implication that this emotion is publicly expressed or actively sought.

Can an authoritarian who believes some people SHOULD suffer (think Dick Cheney and waterboarding) be reprogrammed, or is Schadenfreude / gloating just a fixed brain trait, like eye color or height?

This is from the New York Times (illustration by Lisa Haney, who plays the Cello and toured with Hall and Oats! See her web site for more great illustrations. )

bully_350Every working adult has known one – a boss who loves making subordinates squirm, whose moods radiate through the office, sending workers scurrying for cover, whose very voice causes stomach muscles to clench and pulses to quicken. It is not long before dissatisfaction spreads, rivalries simmer, sycophants flourish. Normally self-confident professionals can dissolve into quivering bundles of neuroses.

…  psychologists who study the dynamics of groups and organizations are discovering why cruel bosses thrive, how employees end up covering for managers they despise and under what conditions workers are most likely to confront and expose a bullying boss. … adult bullies in positions of power are …  just as likely to pick on a strong subordinate as a weak one, said Dr. Gary Namie. … most often, Dr. Hornstein found, managers bullied subordinates for the sheer pleasure of exercising power. “It was a kind of low-grade sadism, that was the most common reason,” he said. “They’d start on one person and then move on to someone else.”

So what do they recommend? Ignore the insult. Focus on the substance.

One of the best strategies to manage a bully, Dr. Hornstein of Columbia has found in his research, is to watch for patterns in the tyrant’s behavior. …  Ignore the insulting tone of a boss’s attack, he said, and respond only to the substance of the complaint. If it is a deadline problem, address that. For an attack on a particular skill, discuss ways to improve. “Stick with the substance, not the process,” he said, “and often it won’t escalate.”- leigh

This is good advice because there may be no intended insult or attack.  See defensiveness.

… being around defensive people can lead to one-sided conversations or emotionally draining situations

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