WEDNESDAY, Jan. 18, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The Germans have a word for it: schadenfreude, loosely translated as "taking joy in the misery of others."
It's what many folks feel when movie villains get blown away or a nasty co-worker gets fired.
Now a new brain-imaging study suggests schadenfreude might be a distinctly male phenomenon.
Reward areas in the brains of male volunteers -- the same areas that delight in food, drugs or sex -- lit up when bad or unfair competitors appeared to be given jolts of pain. The same areas lay dormant when "innocent" individuals got zapped, however.
The schadenfreude effect did not surface in the brains of female volunteers, the British researchers found.
"You saw that there was a lot of pleasure that these males were seeking when they were able to watch this bad-behaving individual get pain," said John Hibbing, a University of Nebraska political science professor whose work focuses on the emotional and neurological forces driving human social and political behaviors.
Hibbing wasn't involved in the research, but said any study that "shows these [impulses] played out in the brain is a really valuable step."
Reporting in the Jan. 18 online issue of Nature, the researchers, led by Tania Singer of University College London, used real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the brain activity of 16 men and 16 women as they engaged in a game.
There was a catch, however: A few of the participants had been coached by the researchers to play unfairly, while the others stuck to the rules.
Needless to say, the cheaters were roundly disliked by the other participants.
Then came the really interesting part: Singer's team tracked the participants' brain activity as they watched their former opponents endure mild-to-intense electric shocks to the hand.
When the "fair" players got jolted, areas of the brain's frontal, executive centers associated with empathy lit up in both men and women, the researchers reported.
Then the cheaters got zapped.
Empathy centers in the brains of female participants lit up just as they had when they watched the "fair" players endure pain.
"However, these empathy-related responses were significantly reduced in males when observing an unfair person receiving pain," the researchers noted.
What's more, "this effect [in males] was accompanied by increased activation in reward-related areas, correlated with an expressed desire for revenge," they added.
These reward areas include more primitive brain regions such as the striatal system and the nucleus accumbens, they said.
This means that "for men, at least, the brain's reward system is activated when there's punishment of the bad guys," said neuroscientist Dr. Paul Sanberg, director of the Center for Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa. "These are the same areas that are involved in reward for drugs and other things we want badly."
In fact, a similar brain-imaging study reported in Science last August found that revenge activates neurological centers linked to other strong urges, such as cocaine abuse or sexual attraction.
Sanberg said he's not sure why a gender gap might exist when it comes to schadenfreude, but he noted that "there are some differences in male and female brains in some of the 'wiring.'"
For his part, Hibbing said empathy and its opposite probably both fulfill an evolutionary function important to early human survival.
"Empathy for another's pain is part of getting along with others in our social unit," he said. "But it's clear that empathic reaction isn't going to be the same when that person is misbehaving."
The strength of the schadenfreude effect in men surprised the British researchers, who speculated that it may be linked to social conditioning -- reflecting men's traditional social role in doling out justice.
But Hibbing believes it could be more hard-wired than that. "This isn't something that these men just felt today -- there's a set pattern in the brain," he said.
He said the findings have very real and somber implications for a wide range of societal issues, most notably the continuing debate on capital punishment.
Learn more about brain imaging from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.