How did an iffy study on the neuroscience of bullies end up in a New York Times blog?

The state of the universe.
Nov. 18 2008 6:21 PM

Bullies Like Bullying

How did a nonstory based on an iffy study end up in a New York Times blog?

Bully. Click image to expand.
A questionable study on the neuroscience of bullies

A year ago this month, the New York Times published one of the most notorious pieces of neuromarketing propaganda ever to show up in a major daily. Two Novembers ago, the Times science pages hawked a witless brain-imaging study of speaking in tongues. (In that case, converging evidence from scientists and journalists revealed a useful fact: If you think you're babbling incoherently, then you probably are.)

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

And now here we are, just a week shy of Thanksgiving. How's the venerable paper going to celebrate Bad Neuroscience Journalism Awareness Month this time around?

Thank goodness for Tara Parker-Pope, the Times' personal-health blogger. Last Wednesday, she posted about a team of neuroscientists from the University of Chicago who had shoved a handful of bullying teenagers into an fMRI scanner to see what was going on inside their heads. "In a chilling finding," she wrote, "the researchers found aggressive youths appear to enjoy inflicting pain on others."

Bullies like bullying? I just felt a shiver run up my spine. Next we'll find out that alcoholics like alcohol. Or that overeaters like to overeat. Hey, I've got an idea for a brain-imaging study of child-molesters that'll just make your skin crawl!

Let's pretend there were some good reason to wonder how much fulfillment a bully finds in his daily wedgies. The University of Chicago research wouldn't help, even if we cared to know.

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First, to call these kids bullies—as did Parker-Pope and just about every other science journalist on the scene—is a bit of an understatement. According to the authors of the study, the eight teenagers selected for the experimental group each displayed up to 18 "aggression symptoms," including a propensity for "physical cruelty to people," "cruelty to animals," and "forced sex." Grand-theft lunch money is the least of these kids' crimes. They're more than bullies; sociopaths might be a better descriptor. Or rapists.

Second, the "aggressive youths" never inflicted any pain (real or imagined) on other people during the experiment. Whatever enjoyment or dismay they felt came from viewing a set of photographs depicting, for example, someone stepping on somebody else's toe. So the brain-imaging data may tell us what it's like to watch a bully but not necessarily what it's like to be a bully.

Third, the brain scans themselves are open to interpretation. Compared with the controls, the bad kids showed activity in a pair of brain structures called the amygdala and the ventral striatum. The study's lead author takes that to mean they were getting off on toe-stomping. But neuropunditry watchers may remember that increased blood flow to the amygdala can be tricky to interpret, as it's been associated with a wide range of emotions. In practice, an fMRI signal in that nutty brain area is more often taken as a sign of anxiety than enjoyment.

The astute blogger Neurocritic points out that the teenagers in the study showed other responses that don't quite fit with the theory that bullies like bullying. A look at the original research paper reveals the "bullies" also showed activity in areas related to the sensation of pain, like the anterior insula and somatosensory cortex. So if the aggressive youths appeared to be experiencing more pleasure than the control group, they may have been feeling more empathy, too.

OK, OK: Why am I wasting time on a study so lame that it got a write-up in the Onion? Hasn't this whole fMRI backlash routine gotten a bit passé?