This Is Your Brain on Schadenfreude in the New York Times describes empathy research at University College London using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques to provide real-time capture of the mental states of the research subjects. The subjects were shown videos of individuals playing a game fairly or unfairly, and then saw those individuals subjected to a negative or positive stimulus. The results were interesting:

The empathy circuits lighted up in both men and women when bad things happened to good people. When bad things happened to bad people, the women in the study were still empathic. But not the men. Not only did they show less empathy toward bad people, but the reward center in the left nucleus accumbens lighted up. All that translates as “Serves him right!”

Although perhaps common sense and experience tend to suggest that women are more sympathetic than men, it’s interesting that the gender differences emerged so clearly in the tests. The article notes that these same centers might light up for totally different reasons, like the subject being given a piece of candy.

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