Why are people so willing to harm those they oppose? It’s a ‘relatively rewarding experience’ for the brain, study shows

A startling new study reveals why people are ready and willing to harm others in an opposing group. According to researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University, harming others increases activity in the brain’s reward network.

The study comes as the nation is mired in a political divide that continues to widen and deepen.

“At a time of deepening political divisions and global conflict, it is crucial for us to understand why people divide each other up into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and then show a profound willingness to harm ‘them,’” says Dr. David Chester, study author and associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, in a statement. “Our findings advance this understanding by suggesting that harming outgroup members is a relatively rewarding experience.”

Thirty-five male college students participated in the study where they completed an aggressive task against either a student from their university or from what they were told was a rival school. However, these students were unknowingly playing against a computer program.

According to the study, the students who were more aggressive against outgroup members from a rival university versus in-group members from the same school showed greater activity in core regions of the brain’s reward circuit.

Researchers say that altered brain activity patterns could play a role in motivating aggression toward outgroup members. The study also reveals that “harming outgroup members is especially rewarding and associated with the experience of positive emotions.”

“This finding helps to balance the narrative about the psychological processes that underlie aggression against outgroup members, which typically emphasizes negative emotional states such as anger and fear,” says Chester. “This study showed that positive emotions may play a role in motivating intergroup aggression, which suggests many new directions for future research on this topic and informs potential interventions that seek to reduce group conflict.”

Even though researchers weren’t surprised by the findings, they were shocked to find such aggressive results when experimenting with a weak group rivalry.

“Many groups have ancient histories of deep hatred of one another and our use of rival universities didn’t even come close to capturing what many truly problematic intergroup conflicts look like around the world,” says Chester. “We chose such a mild intergroup rivalry for several reasons, a major one being that invoking a deeply rooted intergroup conflict might cause our participants undue distress. But it was still surprising to see such clear results despite our use of a relatively minor intergroup rivalry. I surmise that our observed effect would be even stronger in the context of intergroup conflict between two groups that deeply hate each other.”

Chester says that not only is that area of the brain associated with reward, it is also involved in other psychological processes such as learning, motivation and identity.

The study is published in the journal Social Neuroscience.

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