Are men crueler than women?

Researchers find that men take pleasure in seeing pain inflicted on deserving victims, while women do not.

Published January 19, 2006 11:12AM (EST)

Women tend to feel empathy while men enjoy watching deserving victims suffer -- or so says a recent study conducted by scientists at University College, London.

Indeed, the limited research -- which focused on 16 men and 16 women, and was published online yesterday in Nature -- supports all the unpleasant gender stereotypes that really aren't much in need of reinforcement.

The conclusions were drawn after researchers monitored volunteers' brain activity while playing a game of cards with actors, some of whom pretended to cheat. The "cheaters" and "noncheaters" each received a mild shock, while the volunteers watched. The volunteers' brain scans showed that both male and female volunteers empathized with the noncheater's pain. When it came to the cheater, though, women still registered an empathetic response, while the men did not. The men also registered a greater average response in a part of the brain associated with reward when the cheater received a shock. The women's brain scans, on the other hand, showed no spike at all.

Researchers don't offer answers to the more interesting question that the study raises: whether the findings are a result of inherent biology or learned sex roles. Not wanting to assign myself wholly to either category, I'll file this under: the paradox that is nature vs. nurture.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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