Moving From Me To We BlogMoving From Me To We Blog

Unfair! Revenge. How Women and Men Act

Neuroscientist, Tania Singer and her team recruited volunteers to play a game. Some were asked to play by the rules. Others were instructed to ignore them. To not play fair.

After all participants played the game together, they were then asked to observe each other in a second activity. Scientists measured some of the volunteers’ brain activity as they observed some of their former game opponents apparently being subjected to different levels of pain. Result?  

The brain areas that signal pain became active in all who thought they were observing pain in others. This provides neural evidence of their empathy.

Yet, when those who’d played “unfairly” in the earlier game appeared to be in pain, male volunteers who observed them showed significantly less empathetic brain activity than when they saw fair-players in apparent pain. In fact men felt more desire for revenge. 

For women the response was different. They showed the brain responses of empathy regardless of how they felt about the participants’ moral behavior. Earlier research supports this finding.

Regrettably, I feel I’d respond more like a man in this experiment. 

Learn more about how our brain affects our behavior in Donald Pfaff’s book, The Neuroscience of Fair Play. Relatedly read On Being Certain  and Predictably Irrational.

Here’s the good news. Men and women can use meditation to change our instinctively negative reactions – even in the face of unfair or otherwise negative behavior.  Monitoring the brains of Tibetan monks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, neuroscience professor Richard Davidson found that the monk’ first instinct was compassion rather than anger.

Here’s the bad news, at least for many of us.

To become that compassionate, monks spent at least 10,000 hours in meditation. Learn more about the power of compassion in  Emotional Awareness, a book by the foremost expert on reading faces and on lyingPaul Ekman.  

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  1. Posted November 6, 2008 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Kare….. and yet again, you hook me and reel me in. Will you EVER write something I do not feel compelled to read? Where do you find all these great resources & articles? I’d love to spend a day either peeking over your shoulder and/or ‘inside your head’, watching your creative process. Warm Socks, Mary E. Rossow

    p.s. The theme of the entire Obama Presidency could be “Moving From Me to We” …..will you be serving in his Cabinet?

  2. Posted November 6, 2008 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    how generous of you -and yes the Obama campaign structure was filled with Me2We methods – as will this administration…. “by the people, for the people…”

  3. Posted November 6, 2008 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

    Which one is instinctively negative? More to the point…revenge seems loaded to me. What about holding boundaries. Empathy has its limits in, for example, child raising, and, in my experience, it’s easier for me, as a man, to draw the line for my boy. His Mom is naturally more empathetic, and we watch each other. I learn empathy; she learns boundaries.

    It would seem to me that, if we are each hard wired a bit more one way than the other: that’s good news. Either reaction has drawback, and each is a gift.

    (Actually, in terms of revenge, that’s my wife’s territory. It’s a very different issue.)

  4. Posted November 8, 2008 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    thoughtful comments Steven. Empathy is demonstrating boundaries unlike sympathy yet earlier research shows men are more likely to compartmentalize. More recent research shows the gap is narrowing however. Regarding revenge, sounds like your elaboration re you and your wife on that could be an interesting post.

  5. lewis
    Posted December 3, 2008 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    thought you bight be interested in the conversations between dan goleman and paul ekman, and the one with goleman and richard davidson that are part of the wired to connect series and are available at

  6. Posted December 5, 2008 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Thanks I’ve been reading them. Have known Ekman for 20 years, went to observe Davidson’s lab,,,, great work getting much-needed additional attention – thanks! – Kare

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