Study: Bullies Like to Inflict Pain

thumb_old_country_schoolThis may have been a case where considerable time and money could have been saved with a brief conversation with some ten year olds in any school playground. My alma mater, The University of Chicago, has completed an exhaustive study and determined that bullies actually enjoy inflicting pain on others.

Using MRI scans, the researchers confirmed that bullies lack empathetic impulses due to increased aggression.

The researchers found that “Aggressive adolescents showed a specific and very strong activation of the amygdala and ventral striatum (an area that responds to feeling rewarded) when watching pain inflicted on others, which suggested that they enjoyed watching pain.” Put another way, they enjoy whaling on other kids.

Putting aside the rather predictable conclusion, the study may help understand bullies better. We are seeing shocking cases of deaths and serious injuries due to bullies. Various lawsuits have been filed to deal with the continued failure of schools to address this dangerous problem.

For the full story, click here.

21 thoughts on “Study: Bullies Like to Inflict Pain”

  1. Gyges,

    I can’t of course speak for rafflaw, but I don’t think it’s exactly a false dictomy at work. I think there is a real difference in spending prioities of this society. Right now the type of work described in this study is H-O-T. Large sums of money are being put into it. DARPA and other government agencies expand the coffers of these researchers with heaping piles of money. It’s true that DARPA money wouldn’t be going to prevention of bullying, but if you campare the amount of money this type of research gets to the amount that actual prevention gets, the equation is lopsided! So I wish, and I’m guessing rafflaw does as well, that the priorities of our govt. would shift, and that more money be given to prevent bullying.

    You’re right to point out that this research may someday help in prevention and the more we understand of the human body, the better. I just want to point out that the most heavily funded and advanced research in this area is not going to the betterment of humankind. It’s focus is on controlling human beings. It’s a scary prospect. If you get the chance check into the work of Christoff Koch. I went to hear him recently. He’s considered one of the foremost researchers in this field. I listened to him for about 5 mins. and figured he was a DARPA dude (he is). His desire to control other humans was quite noticable.

    This work will help out and I hope the good part of it is larger than the really ugly side of it, but I’m not putting money on that.

  2. Raff,

    I meant to mention this yesterday, but I think you’re putting forth a little bit of a false dichotomy here. I don’t see why money for the study takes away money for preventative programs. They probably don’t come from the same pool of funds. It’s not a zero sum game.

    University sponsored studies not only advance knowledge, but they help to train future experts. Some of those experts go on to work in the Private and Public sectors (as opposed to Academia), developing more the sort of programs you are advocating. So another way to view it is that any knowledge gleaned from the study can help the programs be more effective.

  3. PattyC,
    I wasn’t denigrating your posting. I was just suggesting that it reminded me of the Hillary book title. Any kind of good after school program(music, athletics, YMCA or YWCA or Boys or Girls clubs)are useful and educational to almost any child.

  4. Early intervention is best and can not only be effective but

    MA could be one of those ‘neighborhood’ supports available in the form of an after school ‘Y’ or a Boys Club program etc.

    I think that it is just common sense!

    It just takes money and effort.

  5. That was really my point, Rafflaw.

    The long running, well-funded sociology study that the University of Michigan is involved in, is not really that ‘scientific’, in my view, because it’s not medical, like the MRI study is. Notice not one of the authors is a MD.

    You can speculate that watching violence on a screen or playing video games evokes pleasure in aggressive children, but until somebody measures it, quantifiably, it’s just a theory. And even that, by itself, still does not prove that watching video games or violent movies causes ‘bullying’.

  6. I have to agree with Raff & Jill. Early intervention is best and can not only be effective but productive. As a lifelong student of martial arts, I’ve seen dozens of kids that structure and discipline not only turned away from being bullies, but made them into focused and productive members of society. It doesn’t have to be MA, but guidance and a little discipline at the right age can really work wonders.

  7. PattyC,
    That study about neighborhood resources and how they can be used to intervene and prevent violence sounds a lot like “It Takes a Village”! In my humble, and non-scientific opinion, bullying can be stopped best when it is stopped early. As Jill mentioned, maybe the money could be better spent on prevention and intervention at an early age. Plus, parents and teachers and administrators have to take bullying seriously and do not let it slide by when discovered.

  8. Hugh,

    I was thinking about that also. There are many adult bullies some of whom carry on with the physical abuse, others who use words as their choice of agression. I often wonder why, when people become adults, they don’t stop bullying. It’s as if these adults need to try to put others down in order to feel they have any worth.

    It would be interesting to use f-mri and other techniques on the intellectual/pseudo-intellectual adult bullies and see what comes from that type of study.

  9. Does the study include intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) bullies? If so, what implication might there be for law schools still enamored of the so-called Socratic Method (not particularly Socratic, but certain a method . . . of intimidation).

    And what does it say of the particularly penchant of right-wingers for intellectual bullying — Richard Posner, Charles Fried or in the talk show realm, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and company (the latter two really being bullies of the more conventional type)?

  10. How about ‘Knowledge is power’?

    There are several etiologies to explain violent behavior. At the very least, ‘bullying’ is an interesting survival mechanism which almost certainly springs from, at least, one of these.

    MRI is a powerful, non-subjective medical tool used in tracking and measuring developments as pertinent data becomes available and technology advances.

    Too bad it is so expensive.

  11. I think that any 6 year old could have easily answered that one.

    Next thing you know, they’re going to tell us that no one wants to look at old, washed up, over-botoxed strippers. If they want to be sure, just ask those that frequent strip clubs; they’ll save money that way

  12. Hi Gyges,

    I agree about the media. I’m talking about the scientists themselves. The U of Michigan brings in a lot of researchers and I try to make as many of their talks as possible. I’ve been surprised more than once to hear this research described as definitive! I heard this “last word” attitude get torn a new ass-hole one time on science friday. It was great! It most certainly is not “scientific” to make these claims, but it’s not a perfect world. There are many, many blind spots among scientists, I guess because they are people first! Sometimes it’s hard for people to set aside their egos and respond to others with honesty and integrity.

  13. this is a 5 page article…
    Posted 10/20/2008

    Beth E. Molnar, ScD; Magdalena Cerda, DrPH; Andrea L. Roberts, PhD; Stephen L. Buka, ScD
    Author Information
    Information from Industry
    Assess clinically focused product information on Medscape.
    Click Here for Product Infosites – Information from Industry.

    Abstract and Introduction


    Objectives. We sought to identify neighborhood-level resources associated with lower levels of aggression and delinquency among youths aged 9–15 years at baseline after accounting for risk factors and other types of resources.
    Methods. Data were derived from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, which focused on 2226 ethnically diverse, urban youths, their caregivers, and the 80 neighborhoods in which they resided at baseline.

    Results. Living in a neighborhood with a higher concentration of organizations or services serving young people and adults was associated with lower levels of aggression (odds ratio [OR] = 0.9; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.8, 1.0); living in such a neighborhood also moderated family, peer, and mentor resources. For example, the presence of well-behaved peers was associated with lower levels of aggression among youths living in neighborhoods where the concentration of organizations and services was at least 1 standard deviation above the mean; the association was less strong among youths living in neighborhoods with organizations and services 1 standard deviation below the mean or less.

    Conclusions. Certain family, peer, and mentoring resources may confer benefits only in the presence of neighborhood resources. Increasing neighborhood resources should be considered in interventions designed to reduce urban youths´ involvement in violence…

  14. Jill,

    It’s been my experience that it’s the media that presents every new discovery as the “last word.” Reporters are infamous for taking scientists quotes out of context, and oversimplifying the subject they’re reporting on. There’s also a tendency to find the best angle for a story.

  15. So the bully says that this will hurt you more than it hurts me, and that you will not enjoy this, but I will.

  16. I find research like this fascinating. It’s always nice to be able to point to something repeatable in the lab.

    And it’s simply ridiculous to say that professionals in the scientific research community consider their ongoing life’s work
    ‘the final word’ – on anything. There’s so much we don’t know.

    In fact, the regulars on the blog may be interested to know,
    after JT did a couple of articles, that a transsexual gene link has been identified.

    from: BBC

    Transsexual gene link identified
    The researchers focused on three genes

    ” Australian researchers have identified a significant link between a gene involved in testosterone action and male-to-female transsexualism.

    DNA analysis from 112 male-to-female transsexual volunteers showed they were more likely to have a longer version of the androgen receptor gene.

    The genetic difference may cause weaker testosterone signals, the team reported in Biological Psychiatry.

    However, other genes are also likely to play a part, they stressed.

    Increasingly, biological factors are being implicated in gender identity.

    There is a social stigma that transsexualism is simply a lifestyle choice, however our findings support a biological basis of how gender identity develops
    Professor Vincent Harley, researcher

    One study has shown that certain brain structures in male-to-female transsexual people are more “female like”.

    In the latest study, researchers looked for potential differences in three genes known to be involved in sex development – coding for the androgen receptor, the oestrogen receptor and an enzyme which converts testosterone to oestrogen.

    Comparison of the DNA from the male to female transsexual participants with 258 controls showed a significant link with a long version of the androgen receptor gene and transsexualism.


    It is known that longer versions of the androgen receptor gene are associated with less efficient testosterone signalling.

    This reduced action of the male sex hormone may have an effect on gender development in the womb, the researchers speculated.

    “We think that these genetic differences might reduce testosterone action and under masculinise the brain during foetal development,” said researcher Lauren Hare from Prince Henry’s Institute of Medical Research.

    Co-author Professor Vincent Harley added: “There is a social stigma that transsexualism is simply a lifestyle choice, however our findings support a biological basis of how gender identity develops.”

    Although this is the largest genetic study of transsexualism to date, the researchers now plan to see if the results can be replicated in a larger population.

    Terry Reed from the Gender Identity Research and Education Society said she was convinced of a biological basis to transsexualism.

    “This study appears to reinforce earlier studies which have indicated that, in some trans people, there may be a genetic trigger to the development of an atypical gender identity.

    “However, it may be just one of several routes and, although it seems extremely likely that a biological element will always be present in the aetiology of transsexualism, it’s unlikely that developmental pathways will be the same in all individuals.” “

  17. There are many things that bother me about this research. Most importantly is rafflaw’s point that money should be spent on prevention. Prevention plans are already known, they work, so why isn’t the money going there? Secondly, this research is highly oversimplfied. Our understanding of the human brain is in its infancy. That is fine if the researchers would pony up to that fact. Instead they present these first stage studies as the “final word” on what causes human behavior. It often reduces to “the ghost in the machine”.

    Most disturbingly is its use by our military as a way to “help” soldiers be more aggressive. This use of science is abhorrent.

  18. So Bullies like to inflict pain on others. Who would have guessed? Does it help that we know what parts of the Bullies brain is “activated” by inflicting pain on others? I am not sure that I share your optimism on this study, Prof. Turley. I would think a better study would have been to see what techniques could be used by parents and teachers to prevent someone from becoming a bully. I hope it does it help, because help is needed in this area. If the study shows us how to prevent and treat people who may become or have become bullies, then I am all for it.

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