There’s new research on empathy, and I’ll bet Simon Baron-Cohen and Dolf Zillmann are happy about it. This study seems perfectly consistent with their own previous work. Nevertheless, what we have here is genuinely new.
It seems that Dr. Tania Singer of University College London studied 32 male and female volunteers, who participated in a monetary investment game, administered by confederates (actors, though they were not known to be actors) who either cheated them or dealt with them fairly. The volunteers then were placed in a magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which revealed empathic responses in their brains as they watched the confederates receive a mild electric shock.
Both male and female volunteers reacted with empathy when the fair confederate was shocked. When the cheaters were shocked, however, males did not react with empathy but apparently enjoyed seeing the bad guys receive their comeuppance; there was a surge of activity shown in the nucleus accumbens, the region of the brain that lights up when pleasure and rewards are experienced.
The female volunteers, on the other hand, had empathy for both the fair and unfair confederates as they underwent pain. This did not mean that they liked the crooks. As Dr, Singer explained,
- “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. While women showed similar reactions in the same brain regions while viewing the cheaters being punished, it was more as if they were personally experiencing it themselves, almost as if they were feeling their pain. These results suggest that fairness in social situations shapes the nature of the emotional link we have to other people.” (This research was published online Wednesday in the journal Nature.)
These findings fit together like jigsaw pieces with previous studies. Simon Baron-Cohen had already established that, in general, females empathize more than males. Moreover, Dolf Zillmann had shown several years ago that empathy is strongly related to one’s liking for the other person and, further, that one likes people primarily on the basis of their morality. On the whole, people dislike cheaters and don’t empathize much with them — only now we have Singer’s new research, which shows that women empathize even with cheaters whom they dislike. This discovery actually surprised her and must be followed up with larger studies.
The researchers questioned the volunteers in addition to scanning their brains. The questionnaire corroborated the surprising finding, for not only did males’ MRIs reveal their satisfaction upon watching the cheaters being shocked, but on the questionnaire the men stated that they wanted revenge more than women did. The more a man admitted wanting revenge, the more his MRI lit up in the brain’s reward center when he saw the cheater getting shocked. There was no such correlation in the women subjects.
This study received worldwide publicity yesterday, and the newspapers reflected some of the discussions about the meaning of the research, including the frequent comment that it makes perfect sense. After all, it's males, more often than females, who assume the job of exacting retribution for wrongdoing.
One of the comments I read on the Internet was a virulently anti-feminist article that seized upon this research as proof of inherent psychological differences between the sexes. Moreover, it also was taken as proof that females are less reasonable than males, since punishment is socially necessary and women are biologically unfit for the tasks of punitive enforcement.
I’m deliberately refraining from identifying the author of this scurrilous attack on feminists. (It’s nobody you’d recognize anyhow.) Nevertheless, if I delete the invective from his article I see some issues in it that call for reflection.
Perhaps it is true, as Singer suggests, that women tend to empathize unconditionally, while men empathize only with people who deserve good treatment. That means, I suppose, that women are more likely to be merciful while men are more likely to be just. Justice and mercy are incompatible, in practical terms, yet the world cannot get along without both. A world in which blame and retribution were imposed consistently would be a cruel place in which every misdeed would be avenged, and all vengeance would result in further retaliation. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth would leave the whole world, as Gandhi put it, "toothless and blind."
Yet the opposite kind of world would not work either. Mercy dispensed without regard to merit would betray all standards and accept slipshod performances and even evildoing. We need both empathy and justice, but the challenge is to find ways of combining them. All of us, both male and female, have to confront that antinomy.
One way of resolving the contradiction can be seen in the ancient Greek tragedies. Whenever the protagonist committed a crime, it was the result of fate, not his own free choice. The audience felt pity for him and empathized with him until the end of the drama, when he met his terrible destiny. They did not blame him, but they could not release him from the penalty. His crime was considered a blameless misfortune, much as we consider an infectious disease a misfortune, but we nevertheless exclude the afflicted patient from society. The resolution of a tragic play should leave us feeling pity, according to Aristotle. We accept the necessity of pain and punishment, even while we empathize with the tragic figures who must suffer it.
Both males and females went to Greek dramas, which they regarded as therapeutic. Now we know why. Empathy and retribution were reconciled there, as they cannot be in everyday life.