Bullies, brains and pain

I’m really unsure as to why National Geographic, or any peer-reviewed journal, would publish the results of a study that involved only 16 subjects, but I haven’t been in the bona fide research business for several years.

From the article, “Bullies’ Brains Light Up With Pleasure as People Squirm”:

In the study, Lahey and his colleagues looked at brain activity of eight 16- to 18-year-old boys with histories of lying, stealing, committing vandalism, and bullying.

These eight boys, who suffer what’s clinically known as aggressive conduct disorder, were compared to a group of adolescent boys with no such histories.

The bullying group was shown a series of brief videos that depict painful situations—some accidental, such as a hammer dropped on a toe; others intentional, such as a piano lid closed on a player’s fingers.

In addition to revealing activity in pleasure- and pain-related areas of the brain, the scans also showed that a portion of the brain that helps regulate emotion is inactive in bullies.

In other words, bullies lack a mechanism to keep themselves in check when, for example, a kid accidentally bumps them in the lunch line.

The results are somewhat sensational and, I would argue, not surprising, if you are at all familiar with having to deal with bullies, yourself or via your kids or others you know.  Having performed mental health assessments and amenability reviews on juveniles alledged to have committed acts of delinquincy or crime, I’ve met kids who absolutely do get pleasure from other people’s pain and have shown no emotion.

Still, I would be extremely cautious about drawing any kind of conclusions from a study of just 16 teen boys.  I’m very curious to understand how the journal justifies publishing the findings at this point.

This ABC News item has more details of the study.

Hattip Blogesque tweet.

2 thoughts on “Bullies, brains and pain

  1. Jason – thank you!! First, for still reading. Second for taking the time to comment and third, I’m really glad I left my tiny “out” by stating that I have not done or studied methodology in nearly 20 years! So – thank you again, I definitely stand…well, supplied with much better information and less speculation.

    Very interesting.

  2. Jill,

    Experiments with good controls don’t require many subjects, at least if the effect being measured is of a decent magnitude. This design isn’t purely experimental (because you can’t randomly assign participants to the ‘bully’ group), but it is much closer than what you see in most social science research designs. I’m guessing that most of the human subjects research you’re used to is either completely non-experimental (where the researcher does not have control over either the composition of the groups or the application of the independent variable), involves variables that only explain a small amount of variability, or is attempting to examine several variables simultaneously.

    The problems with this study (at least in the summary of the summary here), are that any given region of the brain does multiple “things,” and even if you’ve got the right cognitive/affective processes, it can be tricky to make reliable linkages between neural activation and behavior. For instance, emotion regulation is not entirely automatic. It’s quite possible that bullies could regulate their emotions if they found them to be aversive, they just don’t find their emotional reaction to the stimuli to be aversive. If that were the case, it wouldn’t really be a neurological difference, at least not in the areas that were “lighting up.”

    Bottom line… many very smart full-time researchers are quick to dismiss small sample sizes. You’re certainly not alone there. But that bias reflects experience operating under certain conditions and assumptions that aren’t applicable to experimental and quasi-experimental designs. The research may be questionable, but the number of participants is not a big factor in that.

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