Dopamine and the Death of Bin Laden
Last night I was having a late night cocktail in DC with a bioethicist friend when my wife called to tell me that Osama bin Laden had been killed. I ordered another scotch and toasted the terrorist's well-deserved demise. Walking home, I watched honking cars flying flags stream toward the White House for an impromptu celebration. Killing a mass-murderer makes some people, like me, very happy.
Jonah Lehrer over at the Wall Street Journal asks:
Why does revenge taste so sweet? Why do we feel the need to chant in the streets after the death of a hated man?
Answer: It feels good. But why? Neuroscientists have peered deep into our brains and find that seeing evildoers punished provides a shot of dopamine to our pleasure neurons, and the effect is especially strong in men. Lehrer describes research in which subjects watch a game of prisoner's dilemma where one player becomes the snitch. Later the subjects watch as the prisoner's dilemma players receive electric shocks; shocking the snitch doesn't provoke empathy, but, rather, pleasure in onlookers. As Lehrer reports:
The most striking finding, however, was limited to the minds of men. According to the data, when men (but not women) watched a defector get punished, they showed additional activation in reward-related areas of the brain, such as the ventral striatum and nucleus accumbens. These are essential elements of the dopamine reward pathway, that same highway of nerves that also gets titillated by sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Apparently, we are engineered to get pleasure from punishing those who deserve to be punished.
Scotch and dopamine—last night was a good night.
Note: I reported on this research in my 2006 column, "Morality on the Brain."