When Jealousy and Empathy Collide in the Brain

California Highway Patrol office issuing a speeding ticket
Photo: Martyn Goddard/Corbis

You know that friend who always tells funnier stories than you do, or the colleague at work who got the promotion you were in line for? Be honest — how much sympathy would you feel if you saw them stub their toe painfully? Would it be more or less than if a less threatening person had the same accident?

If you’re a nice person, you’ll probably tell me that you’d put any status differences to one side and that you’d wince with empathy just as much for whoever you saw suffering. A new brain-imaging study published last week in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience suggests you’d probably be lying. You might claim to sympathize with the pain experienced by a higher status person, but it’s quite likely your jealous brain would actually turn a neural blind eye.

The research team, led by Chunliang Feng at Shenzhen University in China, recruited 22 people, equally divided by gender, and started out by asking them to perform a quick perceptual challenge. The participants had to look at 100 dots distributed across a computer screen and say whether there were more dots on the left- or right-hand side. Next they were told that 650 other people had performed the same test, and that compared to these other players, they (the participant) were a “two-star” player, as opposed to one-star or three-star. This wasn’t really true — it was just the story they were told for the purposes of the study.

Next the participants were told that four of the other players on the dot test — two one-star players and two three-star players — had agreed to undertake some sensory tests that involved them being injected in the face with a needle (ouch!) or touched gently with a Q-tip. To make this seem realistic, the participants were shown videos of four people actually going through this.

Afterward, the participants each lay in a brain scanner while they looked at photos taken of the four individuals receiving the painful or innocuous treatments. They were instructed to try to empathize with these other players, and at the end of the scan they were asked how much pain they thought the players had been in and how unpleasant it felt to look at the photos.

The participants reported that they’d felt equal amounts of empathy and discomfort when the other players underwent the horrible needle treatment, regardless of whether those players were one-star or three-star. But looking at the participants’ brain activity told a rather different story. When they observed photos of an inferior one-star player undergoing the needle injection, their brains showed increased activity in two key brain areas that are known to be involved in feeling pain and in representing the pain of others: the anterior insula (AI) and the anterior medial cingulate cortex (aMCC). But revealingly, when it came to seeing the superior three-star players having the needle injection, the participants’ AI and aMCC were eerily quiet. In other words, their brain’s automatic empathic response was apparently dampened. Moreover, when viewing inferior players’ suffering, but not the suffering of superior players, the participants’ brains showed increased communication between the AI and other regions involved in empathy and perspective-taking such as the thalamus and the middle frontal gyrus, all of which points further to them putting themselves mentally and emotionally in the position of the inferior players, but not the superior.

Note, this wasn’t Schadenfreude as such: The researchers didn’t find any neural evidence that their participants enjoyed watching three-star players’ suffering. However, the results do suggest that the automatic simulation of others’ pain that normally goes on in our brains was dampened when participants saw a superior player suffering.

It seems amazing that people should position themselves on a kind of hierarchy based merely on a pretty inconsequential visual challenge (and subsequently show less neural empathy for someone perceived as “higher status” on this trivial challenge). It just goes to show how competitive we are by nature and how quick we are to measure ourselves in relation to others. The researchers think the reduced neural empathy we show toward superior people is somehow linked to the way they make us feel bad about ourselves. Consistent with this, participants showed increased activity in the aMCC when looking at three-star players undergoing the painless Q-tip procedure, as if the mere sight of these top performers was an uncomfortable experience.

Of course, it’s worth bearing in mind that, like most social neuroscience research, this study involves making a lot of assumptions about the meaning of people’s brain-activity patterns. It certainly seems as if the participants were overstating the empathy they felt for the superior players, and that their brains gave away their true feelings. But this is just one interpretation of the results. Only the participants truly know their real feelings, and while their brain activity was clearly different in response to the superior players’ pain, it’s possible they subjectively felt the same way when looking at the inferior and superior players. It’s also a shame, from a methodological point of view, that there wasn’t a condition in which the participants looked at equal-status players in pain. Without such a baseline, we can’t know for sure if the participants’ empathy-related neural activity was dampened when looking at superior players, as opposed to enhanced when looking at inferior players.

These issues aside, the new results are consistent with, and add to, past research that’s shown people’s neural empathic responses are diminished when witnessing pain endured by someone they dislike, or someone from a different social group. We can strive to be good people, but sadly it seems our brains often reveal the darker side of human nature.

Dr. Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer), a Science of Us contributing writer, is editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.