One Man’s Suffering…17. February 2012 by Christin Stock
In the football stadium, the temperature is rising. There are only ten minutes left on the clock and the score is still tied at two apiece. It is a knockout game, so there is all to win and all to lose. The fans are going wild: they whistle; they sway; they chant. Then their eyes widen as a fouled player tumbles to the ground howling in agony. A collective groan echoes round the stands, at least, round part of the stands because not all the spectators perceived the altercation in the same way. Some faces wince as if they were connected to the shins on the receiving end of the dangerous tackle. On the other side of the grounds, however, other faces wear a wry smile even as the medics are called to attend to the wounded player. Yet, what if the fallen footballer sported a jersey with a different colour?
“Ooww, I felt that one” fans can be heard to say when one of their own is badly injured on the field. They are not exaggerating. Brain research has revealed that the same region is activated in the brain of the observer as in the brain of person who is actually experiencing the pain. The brain region is called the anterior Insula and the sensation is commonly known as empathy. However, this same fan, in the very next moment, can feel totally indifferent to, or even gloat at the misadventures of a member of the opposing team. In this case, neurons in a different brain region – the Nucleus Accumbens – are stimulated. This region is part of the reward centre, which means that observers feel little empathy with others’ misfortune; they might even experience some small pleasure.
Important for feelings of empathy is the perception of group membership. When it comes to family members, friends or even to supporters of the same football team, it is the anterior Insula that will be activated. As observers ‘feel’ the pain of in-group members, they are more willing to lend a helping hand. In behavioural finance, we would say that a friend’s loss is my loss. Things are different when it comes to members of the out-group, however. Here indifference will prevail, if not outright schadenfreude. A competitor’s loss is my gain. With the help of a brain scanner it is even possible to predict whether a subject will run to the aid of person in need or not: the greater the level of activity in the Nucleus Accumbens, the lower will be the willingness to help.
Empathy, or lack thereof, is pre-determined in the brain. As much as I might like to believe that I would take a sportsman-like interest in the well-being of the shins of players on the opposing team, the brain scanner might tell a different tale.