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Punishing injustice and crime found to be rewarding to the brain

Researchers at the Society for Neuroscience have investigated how the brain responds to injustice. The findings of the study suggest that the punishment of a criminal is more rewarding to the brain than supporting a victim.

The experts measured the brain activity of young males while they participated in a “justice game.” Two players, which were referred to as a “taker” and a “partner,” were given 200 chips to start the game. The taker had an opportunity to steal up to 100 of the partner’s chips, and then the partner was given an opportunity to retaliate.

The study participants took part in the game as either a partner or an “observer.” The observer had to decide whether he wanted to punish the taker or support the partner by helping him increase his stash of chips.

The researchers found that participants were more likely to punish the taker when they had experienced the injustice directly as a partner. They were less willing to impose a punishment when they had experienced the injustice as an observer.

When the participants made the decision to punish a taker, neural activity took place in a brain region involved in reward processing known as the ventral striatum. The researchers found that the brain activity corresponded with the severity of the punishment.

Before starting the games, all of the participants had received nasal spray. Some of the individuals were randomly assigned receive the hormone oxytocin in the spray. Previous research has linked this hormone to the act of punishing.

While the participants in the oxytocin group chose to give out punishments more frequently, the punishments were significantly less intense. This indicates that exposure to the hormone encouraged the participants to punish takers to simply maintain the fairness of the game.

The research is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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