Men, women, and the joy of punishment.

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 26 2006 1:32 AM

Men Are From Vengeance

Men, women, and the joy of punishment.

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.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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.

Are men more vengeful? Yes. Five years ago, a Washington Post/ABC News survey  asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of arguments for or against the death penalty. The biggest gender gap, by a factor of two, occurred over the argument that killers deserve death as "an eye for an eye." A plurality of women rejected this notion; two of every three men endorsed it. Princeton Survey Research Associates got similar results in a poll for Newsweek. Respondents were asked to name the main reason why they supported or opposed the death penalty. Among supporters, the reason that registered the biggest gender gap, albeit a small one, was "an eye for an eye."

But the Newsweek poll also illuminated the other side of the male mindset. As the electric-shock study implies, before a man can summon empathy or schadenfreude, he needs to know whether you're innocent or guilty. In the Newsweek survey, this proved true even among death-penalty opponents. When they were asked to pick the main reason for their position, the reason that registered the biggest gender gap by far was that "some innocent people being put to death." Thirty-five percent of the men picked that reason; only 21 percent of the women did.

Both aspects of male thinking were confirmed in a 2000 survey taken by Hart Research  for the Justice Project, an anti-death-penalty group. On executing murderers, male support exceeded female support by seven points. When respondents were offered the alternative of sending murderers to prison for life without parole, plus payment of restitution, nearly half the women who initially supported the death penalty abandoned it. But two-thirds of male death-penalty supporters clung to it, doubling the gender gap. Protecting the public wasn't enough; men wanted the killer killed.

Then the Hart poll sketched a bill that would require DNA testing in death-penalty cases but would do "nothing about the quality of court-appointed defense lawyers." Would such a law go too far, not far enough, or just the right distance? Sixty percent of women said it wouldn't go far enough; only 50 percent of men agreed. Men were less insistent than women on fairness, and more content to spare the provably innocent.

Are men more interested in violence? Yes. A 2002 Pew Research Center survey  asked Americans, "What should get a higher priority now: building our defenses at home to prevent future terrorist attacks, or taking military action to destroy terrorist networks around the world?" Women favored building defenses by a margin of 29 points; men favored it by just 8 points.

In the buildup to the Iraq war, men were less willing than women to string out diplomacy, and more willing to invade. Even among the war's supporters, an April 2003 Los Angeles Times survey found that reasons for doing so differed by gender. Women were more likely than men to say they wanted to stand behind President Bush, liberate the Iraqis, disarm Saddam Hussein, or remove a threat to America. Men were more likely than women to cite Saddam's violations of U.N. resolutions. The two reasons on which men overwhelmingly outscored women, by margins of more than three to one, were "retaliate for 9/11" and "finish 1991 Gulf War." Women focused on safety, loyalty, and compassion. Men focused on grudges, rules, and revenge.

Again, however, men's reactions hinged on distinguishing the guilty from the innocent. A Zogby poll  taken in March 2003, just before the invasion, illustrated the nuances. In a scenario with "thousands of American casualties," men were 10 points more likely to support war than to oppose it; women were 23 points more likely to oppose it than to support it. When the scenario was changed to "thousands of Iraqi civilian casualties," women's answers came out exactly the same, but men's margin of support shrank two points. If men were prone to empathy or schadenfreude purely on the basis of liking or disliking the suffering person, you'd expect them to support war more strongly, not less so, in the face of Iraqi rather than American casualties. But they didn't. The simplest explanation is that in men's minds—at least as strongly as in women's, according to the poll—the civilian character of the casualties outweighed the fact that they were foreign.

A third question posed by Zogby proved the point. What if the thousands of casualties were "Iraqi military" instead of Iraqi civilians? In that scenario, women opposed war by five points, while men favored it by 33 points. The difference between men and women in this scenario was five points greater than in the scenario with U.S. troop casualties, and seven points greater than in the scenario with Iraqi civilian casualties. In short, being male raises your tolerance for foreign civilian casualties, but not as strongly as it raises your tolerance for foreign or even U.S. military casualties. Morality trumps xenophobia.

Are men really so scrupulous? Let's go back to that April 2003 Los Angeles Times poll. Respondents were asked to choose between two positions. One was, "Even though this is war, the U.S. military is doing the right thing in trying not to bomb areas where Iraqi civilians are being used as human shields." The second was, "This is war, so the U.S. military should bomb any Iraqi military position they think is necessary, regardless of whether Iraqi civilians are being used as human shields." Women picked the don't-bomb position by a margin of 38 points (63 to 25). Men picked it by a margin of 43 points (67 to 24). Men were more reluctant than women to kill.

Sometimes it's hard to find the male war ethic in the midst of men's tolerance for bloodshed. But it's there. In March 2003, a Post survey  asked Americans whether we "should strike Iraqi military targets even if they are located in areas where civilians might be killed." By a margin of 18 points, men were more willing than women to strike the targets. But by a margin of 20 points, men were more opposed than women to "attack[ing] Iraq with nuclear weapons" in response to a chemical or biological assault on American troops. The more indiscriminate the weapon—a nuclear missile, as opposed to a laser-guided conventional bomb—the more uneasy men become.

What bothers men isn't nukes per se, but the prospect of slaughtering civilians. In March 2002, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll asked, "If the U.S. were attacked by terrorists using nuclear weapons, do you think the United States would be justified or not justified in using nuclear weapons against training camps and other facilities used by the terrorists that the U.S. believes were responsible for the attack?" Women said yes by a margin of 29 points. Men said yes by a margin of 47 points—an 18-point gap. But when the question was rephrased to ask whether we'd be justified in nuking "major cities in countries that harbor the terrorists," the gender gap shrank from 18 points to three.

You can't experiment with electric shocks in a poll—not yet, at least—but the next best thing is to ask about torture. Men outscore women by about 15 points in their willingness to administer torture, while women convey more intense empathy for its victims. In May 2004, when the Abu Ghraib scandal erupted, 39 percent of American women in a Post survey  said they were angry about it; only 22 percent of men said the same.

What's interesting is what happened to men's feelings over time. Shortly after the Abu Ghraib story broke, a USA Today survey asked Americans whether the abuse "bothers you a great deal, a fair amount, not much, or not at all." Eighty-three percent of women said they were bothered a great deal or a fair amount. Seventy-five percent of men said the same—an eight-point gender gap. A year later, the Army announced that as a result of its investigation, no high-level military officials would be punished. USA Today repeated its poll question and found that on average, one of every seven women who had previously claimed to be bothered a great deal or a fair amount no longer felt that way. The same loss of concern had happened to two of every seven men who had previously expressed such feelings, widening the gender gap from eight points to 17. Time, fading memory, and a verdict had relieved men's distress at twice the rate of women's.

The polls are in, and we men are guilty as charged: more judgment, less empathy, more schadenfreude. But what happens when empathy and schadenfreude collide? Three months ago, a Newsweek/PSRA poll asked Americans whether they'd "support the use of torture by U.S. military or intelligence personnel if it might lead to the prevention of a major terrorist attack." Two-thirds of the men said yes; only half the women agreed. Then respondents were asked whether they'd still support torture if it "makes it more likely that Americans will be tortured by our enemies." Schadenfreude for terrorists vs. empathy for Americans. What to do?

Among respondents who had supported torture on the first question, more than half the women dropped out. But more than two-thirds of the men said they'd still do it, making men twice as willing as women to trade torture for torture. How many men would do it to head off the attack? How many would do it just because the bastards deserve it? Who knows what hatred of evil lurks in the hearts of men?

Human Nature thanks Jodie Allen of the Pew Research Center, Jay Campbell of Hart Research, Claudia Deane of the Washington Post, Stacy DiAngelo of Princeton Survey Research Associates, Susan Page of USA Today, and Fritz Wenzel of Zogby International.