Bullies: Brain Rewards for being a Bully

An Australian-based clinical psychologist Keryl Egan says that bullies generally fall into three main profiles.

  • the accidental bully,
  • the narcissistic bully, and the
  • the serial bully

Types of Bullies

According to Egan, the accidental bully is emotionally blunt, intelligent, confident, successful, aggressive and demanding, expecting a lot of the people who work around them. They don’t listen to others, feel they’re right and, when the pressure is on, they lose their temper. They have no idea how their behaviour hurts people around them.

The Narcissistic Bully is another matter.  They have fantasies of breath-taking achievement. In general, they feel they deserve power and position. This person is destructive and manipulative.  They can fly into rages whenever reality confronts them.

The Serial Bully is considered by Egan to the most dangerous, because they are more likely to have the sociopathic or psychopathic personality. They are intentional, systematic, and organized and the bullying is often relentless. They usually get things done in terms of self interest, not in the interest of the company.

While these have up to now been primarily observations, there is support that the brain of the bully may be reacting in a way that rewards the bully for their actions.

The bully’s brain rewards bully behavior

In a study, which appeared in the journal Biological Psychology in 2008, researchers examined the brain activity of eight 16- to 18-year-old boys with histories of lying, stealing, committing vandalism, and bullying. It’s a clinical condition known as aggressive conduct disorder. Their brain scans were compared with those of a second group of boys without the disorder.

The boys were attached to brain-scanning machines and shown a series of short videos portraying painful situations. The series of situations were either accidental and intentional.  The scans showed that the pain centers of the brains of both groups of boys lit up when viewing the videos, indicating a response of empathy with the hurt people. But the bully group showed a surge of activity in the amygdala and ventral striatum, areas of the brain sometimes associated with reward and pleasure.

“We think it means that they like seeing people in pain,” said Benjamin Lahey, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and co-author of the study. Jean Decety, a University of Chicago neuroscientist, is lead author of the study. “If that is true,” added Lahey, “they are getting positively reinforced every time they bully and are aggressive to other people.”

“This is the first time that fMRI. scans have been used to study situations that could otherwise provoke empathy,” said Jean Decety, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Chicago, in a press release. “This work will help us better understand ways to work with juveniles inclined to aggression and violence.”







photo: © Creative Commons By SuperFantastic Bruce

Graphic Illustration by S Hunt Sound Development Productions

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