In a recent study at the University of Wisconsin, researchers claim that empathy is coded into our genes. A social strain of mouse learned to connect sounds to a negative impulse when they heard a mouse squeak after receiving a shock. Mice, like humans, know when one of their kind is hurting and will demonstrate empathy.
Empathy is hard-wired at a very young age, and we know when behavior is wrong, but some of us do it anyway. This is called the “happy victimizer” effect – people behaving badly even when they know it’s wrong because it makes them feel good.
This effect has been measured in bullies, whose brains react differently when seeing another person hurt. Activity in the part of the brain associated with reward responses increases when they see another person in pain, indicating enjoyment. Those with stronger reactions in these reward areas also scored higher on standard scales for daring and sadism and reported more acts of aggression.
When viewing clips of people intentionally inflicting pain, adolescents with conduct disorder showed brain activity patterns suggesting they have trouble controlling their emotion, the researchers reported.
Neuroscience has yet to pin down the finer points of empathy and where it turns from pain into pleasure when seeing another person hurt, but the Golden Rule is known to all. The key is nurturing it.