Dopamine and the Death of Bin Laden


enough said

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."

NEXT: School Principal Bans Homemade Lunches! Nanny of the Month (April 2011)

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  1. “Scotch and dopamine”

    Great band name.

    1. Better album title.

  2. Scotch and dopamine – last night was a good night.

    And you didn’t even have to use your AK.

    1. Wait a minute. He never said he didn’t. In fact, the full disclosure tag that often follows Mr. Bailey’s posts is conspicuously absent. I wonder…..

  3. Hmmmmmmmmmmmm, dopamine (drools).

  4. I understand the feeling. Probably five years ago I would have felt the same way. This is before I learned more about what our OWN government has been doing in the Middle East and elsewhere long before 9/11. Don’t get me wrong. He was an evil man and deserved to die. But there are so many others in our own government who deserve the same fate.

    It is interesting to see the reaction to one mass murderer killing another mass murderer.…..n-turf-war

    1. I wanted to argue with you, but if a foreign government today fired an anti-tank missile into the WHite House and blew up Obamma’s wife and kids in an attempt to get him- well that’s how low we’ve set the bar.

      1. Indeed, and I still feel conflicted about this to be honest with you. I spent most of my life not questioning our foreign policy in this way. Hell, I was even in the Air Force! I don’t want to believe that I was part of an organization that would do evil things. But I was.

        1. What evil things?

      2. maybe but the payback bar is set so very high now

        1. So it is OK to kill children to get back at their dad?

          1. Only when they’re not Americans or their allies.

          2. Depends on the situation.

      3. Actually isn’t this what they already tried on 9/11 with Flight 93?

        1. Flight 93 was headed for the Illinois legislature?

  5. Wait, so we’re hardwired to be sadistic fuckers? I feel so much better about my species and gender now.

    On the other hand, this is the only excuse we’ll ever need for spanking, right?

    1. Not sadism, justice. A similar study where the innocent are punished would be evidence of universal sadism. Feel better?

      1. look, just because you feel the pain being delivered is justified doesn’t mean you’re not deriving pleasure from the suffering of another. If that ain’t sadism, I’m gonna have to come up with another word to describe my hobbies.

        1. Defining sadism that broadly renders the concept meaningless. Nearly everyone feels pleasure at the comeuppance of people who have done them wrong.

    2. rather is going to love this!

      It fits right in with her tape loop: “All men are retarded assholes and I’m not ’cause I’m a sort-of woman. Check out my blog and read my article about it.”

    3. rather is going to love this!

      It fits right in with her tape loop: “All men are retarded assholes and I’m not ’cause I’m a sort-of woman. Check out my blog and read my article about it.”

      1. I had to say it twice in case she missed it. Thanks squirrels.

  6. “Last night I was having a late night cocktail in DC with a bioethicist friend when my wife called”

    “bioethicist”? Well, I guess if the wife buys it…

  7. Bin Laden is a has-been nobody at this point. Fuck, I thought he was dead already. I can’t get too worked up about them finally getting him; they’ll just use it to justify more war and expense.

    Frankly, this is a pretty lame kill. 10 years later? Not exactly an endorsement of efficiency.

    1. Agreed, but I do wonder if we get points with the terrorists for tenacity. Maybe they’ll start inviting us to their parties and stop punching us in the hallways?

      1. I feel some sort of hazing coming down the pike…

      2. (gives ProL a Charlie Horse, and then a nuggie for good measure)

        1. I guess not.

      3. Tenacity implies a sustained concentration on achieving a goal, not forgetting about it for eight years and then deciding to try again because you’re bored.

        1. Very well, the illusion of tenacity.

        2. Yes, I’m sure that’s the story.

    2. Episiarch: Hear you on the efficiency angle, but I think of killing Bin Laden in terms of pursuing the Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust.

      1. Yeah, time really isn’t a factor in my book. I mean, yeah, woulda been nice to get him 15 minutes after the trade centers collapsed.

        I’m curious to see what the Al Qaeda chatter and activity will be after this.

      2. Uh, Bin Laden organized some jerkoffs to take down two buildings and kill 3000 people. The Nazi perpetrators of the holocaust killed millions over years of a specific eradication program.

        To equate the two is laughable. Yet we’ve gone and made ruins of our civil liberties to get the chump who did the little job. Yay, I’m so happy.

        1. To be fair, I think it’s perfectly acceptable to hunt down the guy–even years later. What wasn’t and isn’t acceptable is expanding government power or impinging on our civil liberties in the process.

          I keep thinking about the Cold War. We didn’t always play by the rules then, but at least we acted like there were rules that we were quietly circumventing. Now, pretty much anything goes, it seems. And that involved an opponent that could quite literally wipe us out.

          1. Episiarch: What ProL said.

          2. Pro L, I suspect the fact that our opponent could wipe us out had a lot to do with why the Cold War was relatively decorous.

            1. Internally? Why? We could’ve gone the police state route then with more justification. Now, it just seems silly.

      3. Seems like an apt comparison, though I’ve often wondered if at some point Nazi hunting stopped being about justice and became more of an obsession.

        1. And, just to respond to Epi, it seems like an apt comparison from a psychological standpoint (while the relative magnitude may be relevant from a cost-benefit standpoint, I’m not sure it plays that big a role in our visceral response to the accomplishment).

        2. Doin’ right ain’t got no end.

      4. I like Ron Bailey’s comparison very much actually.

    3. Your opinions are inconsequential.

      1. As inconsequential as an anonypussy like yourself?

        1. You have the most pathetic troll ever. rather could at least try to be funny.

          1. No she can’t. You might as well say she could try to not be retarded.

            1. It’s all your fault. Even her being retarded is your fault.

              1. I thought it was Warty’s fault. Can’t you get your story straight?

              2. Pardon me for asking, but are you alluding to the expression where one removes the brains of one’s partner during the act of coitus?

                1. Did you just imply that I would fuck rectal, even with NutraSweet’s dick?

                  That’s it, ProL; you’ve gone too far. Pistols at dawn.

                  1. Anton Inbedkov: Shall we say pistols at dawn?

                    Boris Grushenko: Well, we can say it. I don’t know what it means, but we can say it.

                  2. If someone shoots him in the head I give 1k to reason, the nuts 2k

                    1. I’m not paying anything for sugarfree because his diabetes has made his dick useless anyway

                    2. Pro lib, don’t ever suggest I would fuck epi again, or I’ll send Rabban Harkonnen to kick your ass

                    3. The first stage is denial.

                2. “Pardon me for asking, but are you alluding to the expression where one removes the brains of one’s partner during the act of coitus?”

                  I never knew they called that giving her the Warty.

                  1. Technically, it’s “Warty Punch.” And it wouldn’t work on rather. Homely as a cat’s asshole and smells so bad you couldn’t find a death row inmate would fuck her. And she has no brains that can be punched out.

                    1. “Homely” is a pretty generous word to use for this, dude.

                    2. When did she lose weight?

                    3. She’s been using a ShakeWeight.

                    4. [waiting for our resident chubby chasers to demand video]

      2. You caught me, I made dis poopy!

    4. Bin Laden is a has-been nobody at this point.

      Exactly. It was much better to kill him after nobody gave a shit anymore, than make a martyr of him while he was still a hero.

    5. +1 Nuff said

  8. So, what does it say that I think he should have been arrested, tried, found guilty and executed as a criminal? I’m actually not all that euphoric. I was saddened by how it happened and what that means- and what that makes US.

    1. THe fiasco involving a New York trial for Khalid Muhammad was instructive for Obama. I doubt that capture was ever really considered. Obama’s always been able to be cold blooded when it benefits his polling.

    2. for intelligence purposes, questioning OBL may have been more useful than immediately killing him. But I can see why Obama went this route! No “Trial of the Century” tv circus here.

      1. I’m sure that intelligence would’ve been helpful. Oh, well.

      2. I’m sure that intelligence would’ve been helpful. Oh, well.

        1. I dunno, the guy’s been so disconnected from him network for so long, I’m not there’d be much there to get esp since we had his courior ID’d. But we’ll never know.

    3. It just says you’re on one side of the criminal/combatant divide. Me, I think the man declared war on the whole world, and the world treated him accordingly.

    4. You really wanted a long drawn out trial with lots of media attention?

      Seriously? Held where? In New York?

      It would have been a magnet for suicide bombers, protestors, and fuckheads of all stripes.

      1. And when he was found guilty, clearly and without prosecutorial misconduct, justice and truth carry the day. Can the “it would have been hard work” shit.

        1. You actually believe that he would get a fair trial, and that everyone would believe it?

          How much do you want to bet the trial would have been a megaphone for 9/11 truthers ?

          There’s a huge number of people who wouldn’t accept the outcome of the trial, no matter hwat the evidence was. Aside from the fact that most of it is classified intelligence. Even if you could put it all on TV, they still wouldn’t believe it.

          And then Bin Laden would make a big speech about the evil of American imperialism, broadcast live on Al Jazeera. He’d be a celebrity, and we’d have given him the worlds greatest soapbox.

          It’s nice to think that Bin Laden could have gotten a fair trial, but that was never going to happen.

          1. Moussaoui’s jury voted against the death penalty much sooner after 9/11 than this would have been.

            So yes, I think he could have gotten a reasonably fair trial. Certainly fairer than the on the spot execution he got.

      2. There are plenty of yummy targets for suicide bombers in the US already, yet they don’t happen. Which implies that there simply aren’t any available.

  9. I question the findings. I know some pretty vindictive women.

    1. Yeah, men are more vindictive than women? Are we talking Earth people here?

      1. Bitch set me up!

      2. It might have something to do with personal involvment. As Tulpa said up thread, almost everyone enjoys seeing someone who did them wrong get their comeuppance. It seems that the genders come into play when we’re talking about punishing someone for harming a third party.

    2. The most dangerous are pretty AND vindictive.

    3. Maybe if they had subjected him to social disruption and emotional suffering rather than straight up physical pain, the women would have reacted more strongly than the men?

  10. C’mon, Ron, you’ve yet to answer the important question: what is the appropriate Scotch for toasting the death of a mass murderer?

    1. Thank goodness it wasn’t a caffeinated energy drink, he might have tried to climb the White House fence.

    2. 18 year Macallan

      1. I’m not a big fan of the 12, but I wonder if it’s because I’m a novice. So far my favorites are Balvenie (if I want smooth) and Ardbeg (if I want peaty). As a beer guy, I’ve observed lots of folks tend to prefer the extremes when they first get into good beer, and later learn to appreciate the subtleties of a more balanced beer. I suspect it may be the same thing with me and Macallan; maybe I’ll appreciate it more once I get the peat monsters out of my system.

  11. Club: Alas, the bar I was in had pretty slim pickings, so it was Johnnie Walker Black.

    1. No worries, Ron; I’m far from a Scotch snob. I was just curious…

    2. Chris Hitchens would’ve been happy to join you then, were he still able.

    3. Ouch. This Glenlivet is for you!

      1. Glenlivet sucks.

        Laphroaig all the way.

        1. Had their quarter cask at WhiskeyFest Chicago last year and it was AWESOME. Next on my list when I pick up a new bottle.

        2. I dunno…Laphroaig has a funny, medicinal taste to me. Give me some Dalwhinnie any day.

          1. Glenmorangie; Balvenie; McCallan all work for me as well.

          2. As I noted above, I’m a whiskey novice, but I’m a pretty knowledgeable brewer and have made several beers with peat-smoked malt (including this past weekend by coincidence). I’m pretty sure the medicinal taste you’re picking up is phenolics from the peat. Have you tried other peaty whiskies like Ardbeg and do you pick up the same thing?

        3. I was +1ing over Johnny Walker. Almost anything gets a plus one over that.

        4. “Glenlivet sucks.

          Laphroaig all the way.”

          You have that exactly backwards,

          1. You have my sympathies.

  12. This is exactly why hard leftists don’t feel many of the same kinds of emotions that normal people do: they’ve got that defective DRD4 gene which screws up their dopamine receptors.

    1. what else dont hard leftists feel?

      1. A sense of shame for being illiterate trolls, apparently.

        1. +10.

          You can always count on SF to skewer the slow and slobbering!

          1. The fast and the dry-mouthed always get away. 🙁

            1. haahahhahahaaaa!

        2. In fairness to OO, I think “semi-literate” is more accurate.

    2. Actually I think that hard leftists have really overdeveloped sense of vengence. They’re the ones who want violent revolutions where they get to kill the ruling class and oppress the beorgeois.

  13. Isn’t a simpler explanation that this happens to fall under the “wish fulfillment” dopamine releaser?

  14. Is it just me, or is everyone else buying the late night cocktail in DC with a bioethicist friend story?

    1. Daddy left us for a bioethicist. She told him to stop fucking his daughter.

      1. Apparently, we are engineered to get pleasure from punishing those who deserve to be punished.

        Funny, I thought of you when I read that line but the truth is when little boys like helle get hurt, they want vengeance. You would love to punish me, wouldn’t you?

        Good fucking luck


    2. Yes, rather, some people actually have friends. You know, people to be social with outside of the internet.

      1. Bingo, I find it hard to take you seriously, and I am not the only one

      2. rectal has friends, dude; they’re her parent’s corpses. She dresses them up and has tea with them! It’s ever so much fun, right, rectal?

        1. Is your cat alive or dead?

    3. Its plausible, because no one would claim to have a bioethicist friend unless they really did.

      I mean, really. Would you tell the wife you got in late because you were killing a bottle of Ripple with some homeless guys, unless you actually were?

      1. It’s like claiming you were out drinking with your lawyer!

  15. I can’t believe men enjoy violence; there must be something wrong with the study


      1. BIG DONATION, if you give me the name and print the IP address.

        1. Dear editors,

          Hasn’t attempting to make other commenter’s personal information publicly available resulted in banniantion before?

          And, as a philosophical sidenote… how many bottoms does a barrel really need?


          1. Dear editors,

            Sugarfree is a pussy.
            Just thought you wanted to know


            1. I’m so lonely.

              1. I’m rather retarded, and so’s my wife!

            2. Sorry guys, I am having a bad day, I am going to go perform oral sex on myself

            3. Sorry guys, I am having a bad day, I am going to go perform oral sex on myself

        2. And remember… a shiny new donkey for whoever brings me the head of Colonel Montoya!

  16. Wait, instead of going to war to punish the doers of evil, why didn’t we just shoot-up with dopamine whenever we wanted revenge?

    1. Drugs are bad, okay?

  17. The funny thing about the prisoner’s dilemma example they employed is that it doesn’t prove that people are hardwired to find pleasure in “justice”.

    Far from it.

    It shows that people are hardwired to punish defectors. That isn’t even remotely the same thing.

    We aren’t told anything about the relative guilt of the participants in the test. So we can’t know who should be punished and who shouldn’t be – and that is the data point we need to know what’s just.

    In fact, if we were hardwired to take pleasure in justice, we would experience pleasure if an asteroid fell on the head of the person who devised the test, since anyone who devises or deploys a prisoner’s dilemma is automatically morally defective.

    1. Good point (and funny), but in human affairs there appears to be considerable overlap between the administration of justice and the punishment of defectors.

    2. In the absence of a central authority to enforce justice, we always see a pattern of people resorting to individual retaliatory actions, and eventually social norms in favor of group retaliation against defectors.

      It just takes a few thousands years to evolve to trial-by-jury and equal-justice-under-law.

      But the biology seems to be there for tit-for-tat retaliation and group action like stonings, and that’s what those emotions seem to be about. In some way it is more adaptive for the whole community to unite against the perpetrator of a crime.

    3. To punish the defectors–that;s exactly what I thought when I read this article. Mostly because only men experienced the pleasure. Seeing all these crazy vindictive moms around shows me that women seem to enjoy watching the unjust get what’s coming to ’em, but it’s men who have serious my tribe/your tribe issues. Betrayal of the tribe is the ultimate crime for men (note: Blue Wall). Men love their territories and tribes–or else why would they’re be radio station after radio station and news networks about which teams can catch and throw balls better (sports.) I mean, some men devote inordinate amounts of resources concerning who can throw a ball. Tribal.

  18. Bailey’s theory may explain why, at 2:15 David Bowie steals China Girl’s bowl of noodles.

    1. China Girl will take her revenge much later, when he’s forgotten all about the incident.

  19. Watching defectors get punished is rewarding because … punishing defectors is adaptive? Maybe?

    Perhaps our brains have a little mechanism that is designed to induce us to be a little vengeful, by rewarding us with pleasure hormones when we see our enemies feel pain.
    Because we need to be a little vengeful to survive.

  20. One piece of evidence in the study’s favor:

    My dopamine receptors are stimulated when I see everyone flaming rather.

    1. You know you really made it to the big time when she offers a bounty to have you killed or sexually maimed. Sheep-fucking jokes are a no-no, but contract murder is A-OK.

    2. I love how you are all cowards and suck sugarefrees’s alpha dick. Funny, because he’s likely impotent

      1. Why do we have to take sides?

        1. Whatever, Tim. Everyone knows I’m the alphadick and you have to do what I say.

          With the death threats and stuttering, inchoate rage, this was a good day to unfilter her for a little while.

          1. She’s in her manic phase. It’ll end soon.

  21. Think this gave Qaddaffi a dopamine rush?

  22. How good a night would depend on the kinds of Scotch…

    I have always like Christopher Hitchens, but I can’t agree with his taste in Scotch.

    1. On the rare occasions I drink scotch I must have Johnnie Walker Blue Label. Normally I don’t. I like pastis.

  23. I’m sorry, but can someone please curtain which specific civil liberties have been lost since 9-11 etc.?

    Sure, govt. has expanded (which is wrong). And please don’t bring up library books. You can do better than that re: lost civil liberties.

    What was once legal is now illegal thanks to 9-11?
    Flail away…..

    1. Not having your privacy invaded by the government without a warrant.

  24. “Curtain”??? I have no idea how that got in there. **Detail**

  25. lol, now it’s progressed to “fuck Pakistan’s national sovereignty we did the job they couldn’t do!”

  26. Osama won’t violate my sovereignty any more. Obama might.

  27. Here is a headline I would like to see: “I have decided that since I have a Nobel Peace Prize, because I promised to do so in my campaign, and because it is simple the right thing to do. As of today I am withdrawing all troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, and all other nations which we have been running as an overseas empire. We should never have gone down this road of Rome, and I apologize that we did not respect the sovereignty of each of the over 120 countries around the world which we operate military bases. It is mainly because of our foreign policy that nations and groups of what I used to refer to as “radical” have risen up against us, but really they were just defending themselves from our invasion of their nations. From now on we will treat other nations as we expect to be treated. That is not all, our own citizens have been pressured into a corner by US departments with even threat of death if marked as a threat by myself. I apologize for being such a tyrant against you and not defending the constitution as I swore I would. As of today we will recognize all people’s natural rights and only ask in defense of those, nothing more. Love isn’t just a warm fuzzy feeling, it is not doing what makes you feel good, it is standing up for what is right.”

  28. The little match girl chose pleasures that were “disfunctional”. (Burning matches).

    The little match girl is a universal metaphor, e.g. for the rebellious person sabotaging their future career by failing exams, for someone who is annoyed and rants or insults.
    This year I’ve been observing a 3 year old do funny things, e.g. he is enraged by what we think is mild criticism, e.g. “don’t slam the door very hard, darling, the glass might break”, and wreaks further havoc, such as overturning a pot plant leaving dirt on the floor. He then insists on cleaning up, wielding a broom to spread dirt around.

    Whatever he is doing is presumably for a dopamine hit, like the little match girl.

    90% of the time he is very agreeable and loves interacting with people with conversation or play.

    We are all is “little match fgirsl”. Now for my “little match girl” rant – who is Ronald Bailey? Is he a straw man?

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