William Saletan in Slate:
Do men enjoy punishing evildoers? A study published last week in Nature suggests we do. Scientists planted actors among volunteers playing a game. Some actors played fairly; others played unfairly. Then the researchers delivered electric shocks to the actors while monitoring the brains of volunteers who looked on.
Men, like women, showed “empathy-related activation in pain-related brain areas” when shocks were administered to actors who had played fairly. But when shocks were delivered instead to actors who had played unfairly, empathetic responses in men, unlike women, “were significantly reduced.” In fact, men showed “increased activation in reward-related areas, correlated with an expressed desire for revenge.” Apparently, judgment controls men’s feelings more than women’s. It determines who gets our empathy and who gets our schadenfreude—the joy of watching the suffering of someone you dislike.
The study’s authors say we need more evidence before asserting differences in empathy and schadenfreude between men and women. But we already have such evidence, in the form of polls about crime, war, and torture. All you have to do is look for gender differences, or lack thereof, on questions that touch various dimensions of the psychology of punishment.