According to this article, recent research demonstrated that when bullies watched videos of pain being inflicted on others, both accidentally and intentionally, their brains responded differently than a control group made of boys who had no history of aggressive behaviors. While the control group’s imaging showed an activation of areas in the brain noted for self-regulation, the aggressive youth’s brain experienced an activation in areas associated with rewards. From the article:
"Aggressive adolescents showed a specific and very strong activation of the amygdala and ventral striatum (an area that responds to feeling rewarded) when watching pain inflicted on others, which suggested that they enjoyed watching pain," he said. Unlike the control group, the youth with conduct disorder did not activate the area of the brain involved in self-regulation (the medial prefrontal cortex and the temporoparietal junction).
Overall, this research is unsurprising, though hopefully it will lead to hypotheses for addressing the issue, particularly treatments. Consistent with this research, a diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder has listed as one of its possible symptom criteria a lack of remorse, which would correlate quite strongly, I would imagine, with sadism (which is what this research is actually addressing). Lack of remorse also goes hand-in-hand with a lack of empathy, which is also associated with Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). Now, children and adolescents cannot be diagnosed with a personality disorder, but a signature requirement of ASPD is the presence in childhood of Conduct Disorder. This diagnosis features behaviors commonly associated with delinquency. Now, not all kids with conduct disorder grow up to become ASPD adults, but about 25-50% do, which is a pretty strong predictor.
Of even more interest is the possible application of this research to the detection (and, longshot though it may be) treatment of psychopathy. The concept of psychopathy, briefly defined, is that of an “aggressive narcissist” who meets criteria for ASPD, but also meets certain personality traits often associated with narcissism. In fact, the only non-behavioral symptom criteria for ASPD is the aforementioned lack of remorse, so it is quite possible to be diagnosed with ASPD without coming close to meeting the criteria for psychopathy. In United States Penitentiaries (home to the “best of the best” when it comes to crime), approximately 75% of inmates meet criteria for ASPD, but of those, only about 25% will score as “Very High” on psychopathy, as measured by the Robert Hare's Psychopathy Checklist - revised. To be able to further identify markers for this issue, and ultimately be able to provide effective intervention, would provide a bounty unmeasurable in terms of preventing pain, suffering, crime, and expenses for housing these people in prisons. Lack of empathy is truly a hallmark sign of psychopathy, and many are, consistent with this, very sadistic.
The main problem, as of now, is what to do about that. My personal opinion, despite the Herculean efforts of treatment providers across the country, is that you can’t teach empathy to an adult. Others may argue, but nothing in the research I’ve seen suggests this can occur with any sort of predictability. Of even more importance, I believe it is actually dangerous to try to teach empathy to a person high in psychopathy. What you are really teaching that individual is to “know when to cry,” which allows for later manipulation of staff and authorities. Some research has shown that psychopaths who “successfully” complete treatment are more likely to re-offend than those who don’t participate in treatment. They are also incredibly disruptive of the treatment process in general, sabotaging others who might otherwise be earnest in their efforts towards change.
Does this study change that? No, but it suggests areas of further interest. The idea, long-term, would be to figure out a way to eliminate the interpretation of inducing pain as rewarding. Therapy can’t do that as of now, at least with psychopaths - perhaps some neurological or pharmacological intervention down the road may be successful.