How Brains Light Up When We Reward and Punish

By Helen Burdon, University of Queensland

In a neuroimaging study, scientists have found that having allegiances with people can affect feelings of empathy when punishing and rewarding others.

Researchers mapped the brain activity of volunteers while they where giving electroshocks or money to members within or outside their group.

Pascal Molenberghs from the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology says the research demonstrates that different neural responses were involved when delivering rewards or punishment to others.


“When we reward others we activate similar brain areas as when we receive rewards ourselves,” he says. “However, these areas become more active when we reward members from our own group.

“Previous research has shown that we prefer to give more money to people from our own group, now we can actually show that this is associated with increased activation in reward-related brain areas, which is really exciting.

“The brain responses for punishing others directly revealed a different pattern of activation, one that was typically associated with receiving and seeing others in pain,” Molenberghs says.


The study, published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, also found that personality traits influenced activity in these punishment-related brain areas.

People who did not care as much about others showed less activation in these areas when shocking others, especially when they were shocking out-group members.

Co-author Jean Decety, a professor at the University of Chicago, says the results provided important insights into why some people don’t care as much when hurting others.

“Empathy and sympathy are necessary abilities to understand the potential consequences decisions will have on the feelings and emotions of others, even if the recipients of those decisions belong to a different group,” he says.

Source: University of Queensland. Republished from under Creative Commons License 3.0.