Revenge: a dish that is best served cold by men
By Mark Henderson
A study shows which sex prefers getting its own back
HELL may hath no fury like a woman scorned, but men are more vindictive than women when it comes to revenge, according to British scientists.
Male and female brains react differently when they see people who have slighted them experiencing mild pain, according to new research that shows men tend to take satisfaction while women feel empathy.
The results of a study at University College, London, published today in the journal Nature, indicates that sex may influence attitudes to punishment, with men keener for retribution for perceived insulting or unfair behaviour.
A series of experiments was designed to make volunteers dislike strangers who had offended them and gauge their reactions when the culprits were punished.
Thirty-two subjects played an investment game with four actors. Each player had to give cash to an actor, who then decided how much to give back. The amount of money was tripled at every transaction, creating an incentive for generosity on both sides.
While two actors played fairly, returning large sums of money, two behaved stingily, keeping most or all of the cash.
“During breaks in the tests you could tell from the body language that both the male and female volunteers did not like the actors who had cheated them,” Tania Singer, who led the research, said. “They tried to stay away from them as much as possible.
The volunteers completed a questionnaire about the actors. “They consistently rated the fair player as being more agreeable, more likeable and even more attractive than the unfair actor,” Dr Singer said.
They then had their brains scanned while they watched the actors receiving mild electric shocks. They were told the pain would be the equivalent of a bee sting.
When the fair actors were shocked, volunteers of both sexes showed higher activity in areas which process pain, indicating that they felt empathy. When they saw the unfair actors receive a shock, the women’s brains still showed empathy, but the male brains showed more activity in the nucleus accumbens, a “reward” centre, suggesting that they took pleasure in the cheats’ suffering.
Dr Singer said that the gender difference would have to be confirmed in larger studies, but the results suggested that “fairness in social situations shapes the nature of the emotional link we have to other people”.
“This type of behaviour has probably been crucial in the evolution of society as the majority of people in a group are motivated to punish those who cheat on the rest.”