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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 August, 2004, 23:18 GMT 00:18 UK
Why we enjoy telling people off
Image of the brain, courtesy of Dominique de Quervain, University of Zurich
It is linked to the area of the brain associated with enjoyment
People genuinely enjoy telling others off if they have done something wrong, according to scientists.

Researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland tested seven pairs of men as they played a game.

The game involved money changing hands. If one player failed to play fairly, he tended to be punished by the other.

Writing in Science, the researchers said telling someone off activated a part of the brain which is linked to enjoyment and satisfaction.

The researchers said it might explain why many people choose to reprimand others if they break the rules or abuse their trust.

Game playing

The men playing the game were unable to see each other. They were each given 10 units of money and told they could increase their winnings if they trusted each other.

The first player was given the option of keeping all his money or giving it to his opponent.

Psychologically this makes sense
Dr Mike Isaac,
Consultant psychiatrist
If he kept his money, he did not make anything extra. But if he gave it all to his opponent, the opponent's winnings would quadruple.

The second player would then be asked whether he wanted to keep the money or share it with his opponent.

If he failed to share it, the first player would be asked whether or not his opponent should be punished. They were given one minute to make their decision.

In six out of the seven cases, they chose to reprimand them. During the time it took them to make their decision, scientists monitored their brain.

They found that deciding to impose a penalty activated the dorsal striatum region of the brain. This region is known to be involved in feelings of enjoyment and satisfaction.

"The same area that is activated when people punish is also activated if somebody who is in love sees a picture of their loved one, for example," explained co-author Dr Ernst Fehr.

"It suggests that there is a satisfaction associated with punishing norm violations - they have been cheated, they feel bad in that situation probably - and now by punishing, they feel less bad," he told the BBC.

However, Dr Mike Isaac, a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at the Maudsley Hospital in London, UK, said the jury was still out.

"Psychologically this makes sense," he told BBC News Online. "We do like to tell each other off. It gives us a pleasing sense of superiority.

"But to say that this can be traced to a particular part of the brain is wrong. We simply cannot say that looking at images of the brain."

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