Dirty Harry had it right: Brain scans show revenge really might make your day. Planning revenge sparks enough satisfaction to motivate getting even - and the amount of satisfaction actually predicts who will go to greater lengths to do so, report Swiss researchers who monitored people's brain activity during an elaborate game of double-cross.
In research reported in today's edition of the journal Science, University of Zurich scientists used PET scans to monitor the brain activity of game players. Two players could trust and cooperate with each other so both earned money. Or one could double-cross the other and keep an unfair share.
Sometimes the double-cross was deliberate; other times, rules of the game dictated it. The victim could retaliate by fining the double-crosser, but sometimes had to spend his own money to impose that fine.
All 14 players chose revenge whenever the double-cross was deliberate and the retaliation free. Twelve punished a deliberate double-cross even if it cost them additional money, reports Newsday.
According to the National Geographic, "A person who has been cheated is in a bad situation—with bad feelings," said study co-author Ernst Fehr, director of the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. "The person would feel even worse if the cheater does not get her or his just punishment."
Human societies are an anomaly in the animal world. Ours are based on a detailed division of labor and cooperation between genetically unrelated individuals in large groups.
Fehr and his colleagues suggest that the feeling of satisfaction people get from meting out altruistic punishment may be the glue that keeps societies together.
"Theory and experimental evidence shows that cooperation among strangers is greatly enhanced by altruistic punishment," Fehr said. "Cooperation among strangers breaks down in experiments if altruistic punishment is ruled out. Cooperation flourishes if punishment of defectors is possible."
Writing in an accompanying Science commentary, Brian Knutson, a psychologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, described as "elegant" the experiment the Swiss team used to show "this complex emotional dynamic of schadenfreude" - the pleasure felt over someone else's misfortune.
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