In a recent post I presented the importance of empathy in marriage and the physiological studies that have proven this. However, all people do not empathize in the same manner. Bullies are one group whose brains differ in how they relate to the emotions and pain of others.
Researchers at the University of Chicago studied empathy in bullies. They performed functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans of boys’ brains aged 16 to 18 while showing the boys videos of people getting accidentally hurt. A control group was tested, along with a group of boys who had been abusive and had been diagnosed with conduct disorders.
Prior to these studies, many surmised that bullies lacked empathic skills and couldn’t connect to the pain they were causing. I’ve heard that said about psychopaths. At least in the case of bullies, the reality is worse than the prediction. According to this study, bullies do not lack empathy; they feel pleasure when others experience pain.
When the bullies’ brains were scanned, “the brains signaled empathy towards the pain, but their brain wiring associated that pain empathy with pleasure, in the reward centers of the brain,” says professor Jane Decety. “Bullies associate the pain of their victims as a positive feeling. These results suggest that the abusive behavior of bullies feeds their brains with a feeling of reward.”
These tests were done on older boys, so it remains to be seen if the results would be the same in adult perpetrators of domestic abuse. If that is how abusers think, it is one more reason why victims should not stick around to try to persuade the abuser to change their ways. Brains that are wired to receive pleasure from causing pain may just be on the lookout for the next person to provide that reward.
If someone you know is in an abusive situation, refer them to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence and share these safety tips.