Teenage Bullies are Rewarded With Pleasure, Brain Scans Show

By Nina Bai | November 7, 2008 3:38 pm

bullyIt’s no fun being bullied, but new research supports what many teenagers have long suspected: A victim’s pain may be a bully’s gain. A new brain imaging study of aggressive teenage boys found that watching others being bullied triggered parts of their brains associated with pleasure. “It is entirely possible their brains are lighting in the way they are because they experience seeing pain in others as exciting and fun and pleasurable,”[Reuters] said co-author Dr. Benjamin Lahey.

The study subjects were 16 boys 16 to 18 years old, half of whom had aggressive conduct disorder and half of whom had no behavioral disorder. While their brains were hooked up to functional MRIs, the boys were shown video clips of people getting hurt either by accident, such as having a heavy object dropped on their hands, or by intentional actions by others, such as someone stomping on their feet. Lahey said he expected an emotionally indifferent response to pain from subjects with conduct disorder, a mental disorder characterized by aggressive, destructive or harmful behavior towards other people and animals and can include theft, substance abuse and sexual promiscuity, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Instead, fMRI scans showed a strong but highly atypical emotional response [ABC News].

The aggressive group was not apathetic to the suffering of others, but actually seemed to derive sadistic pleasure. “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,” said [co-author] Jean Decety…. Unlike the control group, the youth with conduct disorder did not activate the area of the brain involved in self-regulation (the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction) [LiveScience]. The results of the small study are published in Biological Psychology [subscription required].

While bullying is common during adolescence, conduct disorder only affects 1 to 4 percent of the teenagers, most of them boys. The researchers caution that the study focused on boys with conduct disorder and should not be extrapolated to all bullies, and also note that the results should be verified by a larger study. 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 [ABC News].

Dr. Michael Eslea, a psychology professor, commented: “A better understanding of the biological basis of these things is good to have but the danger is it causes people to leap to biological solutions – drugs – rather than other behavioural solutions” [BBC News].

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Image: flickr / Aislinn Ritchie

MORE ABOUT: emotions, mental health
  • Vince

    They needed a STUDY to confirm this!?
    I thought everyone knew that!

  • Noah

    I agree with Vince. We don’t need entire teams of scientists to tell us that some adolecents enjoy inflicting pain on other people. We should really start focusing on what we can do to prevent this.

  • Murray Hill

    Clearly, some of these scientists have been raised in an overly sheltered environment, where negative behaviors and emotions were never observed.

  • John

    Doesn’t the fact that this trait is part of the genetic make up of bullies mean we need to accept it? Isn’t that the same basis for acceptance of homosexuality.

  • Bryant

    Is there a study relating these behaviors into adulthood? Sociopathic tendenacys and/or Bi- Polarism

  • http://www.debrasanders.com debra

    Whoa…before everyone assumes this is a genetic trait…what about the question of association???? isn’t it possible that by age 16, the association of pleasure with other’s pain is a learned behavioral response? I would be interested in looking at how it lights up on an MRI in 2, 4, 6 8, and 10 year olds identified as bullies and see if the MRI centers are similiarly being triggered.

  • worried mama

    I just finished leaving my childs school wiping tears away. My child is 15 now and the sweetest child in the world, would befriend anyone no questions asked and has been picked on, spit on, slapped, and told she stunk. The teachers at the school do not care and they say yes we have seen her being picked on and thats awful but she causes it because of the things she does HAHA to fit in. So, what I want to know is this WHY with all the education we have and all the money being spent on those things that don’t really matter is our children suffering something has seriously went wrong in our society and someone needs to hold these childrens hands and tell them that they do matter and we will give you the tools to use to get this bullying stopped, until this happens it doesnt matter how much pain they inflict or whether its on purpose we the parents of the victims know ITS ON PURPOSE and we would like it stopped as soon as possible. worried mama

  • Nessy

    I have experienced female bullies (NOT ONLY male ones!) too, as a teenager. They were also enjoying themselves very much, so I reckon it is NOT only a male problem. Perhaps in certain social environments female aggressiveness isn´t accepted, which would explain the outcomes of that experiment. Having been a teenager I had to bully people back to get rid of my bullies, which I had learnt to do over time. A change of the social environment might help too. On the whole I found out, that you can´t be nice nowadays, esp. as a teenager at highschool. You just won´t get away with it. Don´t get me wrong. I am not saying you have to be mean. But you can´t be polite and you shouldn´t be warmhearted towards your school mates. You can have friends at highschool, but they are not your family, so you shouldn´t tell them certain things. You should never trust them. Basically you have to show people you don´t need then. They disrespect you otherwise.

  • worried mama

    Nessy, Thank you for your response I agree whole heartedly. My child does not have to be warmhearted to the others, You know in my time most all were reared to have morals, politeness, or manners, my mom I remember saying to me treat them as you want to be treated, but now, in the world we live in those type of skills are yesteryear, if you saw on the news kids beating kids and we adults, sit and watch this happen, how sad. The courts have put such standards on whats right and wrong for a parent, that it actually scares a mom. My child sees these things and looks to me to say well that would’nt happen to my child I stand up for her, but guess what, I know if I tried to stop a fight I probably would be arrested and sued. This really bothers me to no end.

  • http://www.sosbeevfbi.com geral


    “As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
    In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains
    seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must
    be most aware of change in the air — however slight —
    lest we become unwitting victims
    of the darkness.” ~ Justice William O. Douglas


    QUESTIONS! Geral Sosbee


  • http://www.9-11themotherofallblackoperations.blogspot.com Jim

    The U.S. Intelligence community utilizes signals intelligence satellites to deploy brain analyzing equipment on the American population without the population’s knowledge or consent.

    The National Security Agency’s Signals Intelligence EMF Scanning Network has been used to catalogue the unique electromagnetic field which emanates from the human brain to electronically brain fingerprint the American people.

    This technology allows for computer to brain interface of unsuspecting subjects, who are then used as targets of non consensual human experimentation.

    This remote neural monitoring technology has been used by the NSA for many decades, and allows for the electronic invasion of one’s own brain. Clearly, there’s no longer any privacy in America, when the federal government has created proprietary signals intellligence technology that can track a person’s every move, and monitor their every thought.

    See John St. Clair Akwei’s lawsuit against the NSA by Googling: AKWEI VS NSA

    Also See:

    The Mother Of All Black Operations


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