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Brain research shows punishing is more rewarding than helping

Just imagine: you see someone being treated unfairly. Do you find it more rewarding to help the victim or punish the perpetrator? Research by Leiden psychologist Mirre Stallen indicates that punishing is more rewarding. Publication in JNeurosci.

In test environments people seem to get more satisfaction from punishing perpetrators than helping victims. This is the conclusion reached by Dutch researchers from different universities, including Leiden psychologist Mirre Stallen (complete article). They found that the 'reward area' in the brain was significantly more active when meting out punishment than when providing compensation to victims.  

Coins were taken

The researchers developed a game in which 54 people took part while being monitored in an MRI scanner. As part of the game the participants were given 200 coins that they could exchange at the end of the game for a few euros. They played the game with two other players, who sometimes took coins from the test candidate or from one another. The participants could then choose to punish the players for stealing the coins or they could compensate the player who had lost money by giving them some of their own coins.

An image of the game.

‘Cuddle hormone’ exposed

The study carried out by Stallen and her colleagues shows that the hormone oxytocin has an influence on the tendency towards punishing behaviour. Oxytocin has gained a reputation as the 'cuddle hormone' that makes people more empathetic, but this study leaves that reputation in tatters. Stallen commented, 'The test candidates who were given the hormone oxytocin handed out punishments more than those who were given a placebo, although the punishments were on average milder, something like a rap on the knuckles.' 

Other explanations excluded

‘In the computer game we made sure that all other possible explanations were excluded,' Stallen explained. 'You only see the rational transaction, namely how many coins one person steals from another. And you don't see their faces, because a person's facial expression could influence your judgement.' 

Different questions answered

According to Stallen, this is valuable research because it answers several different questions. 'What you see for each participant is not only whether they decide to punish or compensate, but also how many coins they are prepared to give up. At the same time, you record what is happening  in the brain at the point when the decision is made. This is the first time that such a detailed study has been carried out.' 

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