Germans have a word for it — schadenfreude — and when it comes to getting pleasure from someone else’s misfortune, men seem to enjoy it more than women. Such is the conclusion reached by scientists at University College London, in what they say is the first neuroscientific evidence of schadenfreude.
Using brain-imaging techniques, they compared how men and women reacted when watching other people suffer pain.
If the sufferer was someone they liked, areas of the brain linked to empathy and pain were activated in both sexes. Women had a similar response if they disliked the person experiencing the pain, but men showed a surge in the reward areas of the brain.
“The women had a diminished empathic response,” said Dr. Klaas Enoo Stephan, a co-author of the report. “But it was still there, whereas in the men it was completely absent,” he added in an interview.
The scientists, who reported their findings in the journal Nature, said the research shows that empathic responses in men are shaped by the perceived fairness of others.
“Empathic responses to other people are not automatic, as has been assumed in the past, but depend on the emotional link to the person who is observed suffering,” Stephan said.
In the two-part study, 32 men and women volunteers played a game in which they exchanged money with four other people who were actors playing a part.
The actors were either fair characters, who returned equal amounts of cash that have been given to them, or unfair people who gave little or no money back to the volunteers.
In the second part of the experiment, the volunteers were placed in magnetic imaging brain scanners as they watched the actors receiving a mild electric shock, similar to a bee sting. The scientists measured reactions of the volunteers in areas of the brain associated with pain and empathy and reward while the actors experienced pain.
The responses shown in the brain images were backed up with questionnaires filled in by the volunteers. Men admitted to having a much higher desire for revenge than women and derived satisfaction from seeing the unfair person being punished.
“We will need to confirm these gender differences in larger studies because it is possible the experimental design favored men, as there was a physical rather than psychological or financial threat involved,” said Dr. Tania Singer, who led the study.