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Humans Feel More of Their Enemies' Pain

Update Date: Oct 18, 2013 05:40 PM EDT

Humans keep their friends close and enemies closer. A new study reveals that people feel the pain of their enemies more strongly than the pain of their friends.

Researchers explain that humans evolved to empathize more with the enemy because it is more useful for self-preservation. Opponents are most dangerous and unpredictable when they are in pain, and people need to understand why an enemy is in pain to understand the risk of retribution.

The latest study revealed that the part of the brain responsible for empathizing the pain of others is activated more strongly when people watch someone they hate suffer.

Researchers said this makes sense because the human brain is programmed to pay more attention to the need to monitor enemies closely, especially when they are suffering and unpredictable.

"When you watch an action movie and the bad guy appears to be defeated, the moment of his demise draws our focus intensely," said Lisa Aziz-Zadeh, of the Brain and Creativity Institute of the University of Southern California, according to the Daily Mail.

"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," said Aziz-Zadeh.

The latest study involved a group of white Jewish males who watched videos of anti-Semitic individuals in pain and then other videos of non-hateful individuals in pain.

Brain scans revealed that activity levels in the brain's pain matrix were more activated by watching the anti-Semites suffer compared to the tolerant individuals. The pain matrix is a network that includes the insula cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the somatosensory cortices. These brain regions activate when people watch others suffer. While the pain matrix is believed to be related to empathy, the latest findings reveal that the pain matrix may be more involved in processing pain in general and not necessarily tied to processing feelings of empathy.

"The results further reveal the brain's flexibility in processing complex social situations," said researcher Glenn Fox, according to the Daily Mail. "The brain uses the complete context of the situation to mount an appropriate response. In this case, the brain's response is likely tied to the relative increase in the need to attend to and understand the pain of the hateful person."

The findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

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