Why do we feel the pain of bad guys more than the good guys?

Whether it be in movies or real life, we don’t tend to feel sorry for the villains. But strangely, and even a bit disturbingly, we often empathize more with the pain they experience. A new study offers a potential answer to this puzzling phenomenon — and it may have something to do with wanting to keep our enemies closer.

Based on the findings of a study conducted by Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of the Brain and Creativity Institute of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, we have a vested interest in paying close attention to, and even empathizing with, the physical pain of our enemies. And by empathizing, the researchers aren’t necessarily suggesting that we feel sorry for them, or that we sympathize with their point of view — it’s just that we are more tuned into the pain they’re experiencing. We are biologically inclined to want and need to understand their pain.

“When you watch an action movie and the bad guy appears to be defeated, the moment of his demise draws our focus intensely,” explains Aziz-Zadeh in a press release. “We watch him closely to see whether he’s really down for the count, because it’s critical for predicting his potential for retribution in the future.”

In other words, we experience a heightened sense of awareness as it pertains to the pain experienced by villains so that we can better assess their fate. It’s a classic case of keeping your friends close, but keeping your enemies closer.

The Pain Matrix

To learn more about what’s going on in the brain during these times, Aziz-Zadeh examined activity in what’s called the “pain matrix” — a neural network that includes the insula cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the somatosensory cortices. The researchers also paid attention to the reward processing and emotion regulation portions of the brain, namely the striatum and frontal regions. All these areas are known to increase in intensity when a person watches another person suffer.

Neuroscientists know that this integrated system is related to empathy. But as the new study shows, the pain matrix is less involved in empathetic processing than it is to the processing of pain experienced by those we hate or fear.

Aziz-Zadeh reached this conclusion after studying the fMRI brain scans of volunteers, all of them white, male, and Jewish, who were made to watch two different videos: one of hateful, anti-Semitic individuals in pain, the other a video of likeable, tolerant, non-hateful persons in pain.

To their surprise, the volunteers’ pain matrices were more activated when watching the anti-Semites suffer compared to when they were watching the tolerant individuals in pain.

“These data indicate that regions of the brain active while viewing someone in pain may be more active in response to the danger or threat posed by witnessing the pain of a hateful individual more so than the desire to empathize with a likable person’s pain,” conclude the authors in the study, which now appears in Frontiers of Psychology.

And for good reason. As the researchers note, “While social bonds are built through sharing the plight and pain of others in the name of empathy, viewing a hateful person in pain also has many potential ramifications.”

Like making sure they get their comeuppance — and pose no future threat.

Image: The Dark Knight/Warner Bros.

Related: Could we engineer humans to have more empathy? | Bullies Get Pleasure from Your Pain