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Do Bullies like Bullying?

Although Slate is my favorite magazine, and usually the first website I check each day, I’ve been known to complain about its science coverage, which typically lacks the insight of its other features. A much-too-rare exception to this are the occasional articles by Daniel Engber (full disclosure: I have attempted to convince Engber, a Slate editor, to run articles by me in the past, unsuccessfully).

Yesterday, he wrote an excellent piece about a recent bit of cognitive neuroscience looking at bullies and how they relate to bullying. Researchers scanned the brains of “bullies” while they viewed videos of bullying and reported that pleasure centers in the brain activated.

In a cheeky fashion typical of Slate, Engber questions the novelty of these findings:

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!

Obviously, I was a sympathetic reader. But Engber does not stop there:

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?

Engber goes on to detail a number of limitations to the study, including how the kids were defined as “bullies” (some appear to be rapists, for instance) and also how “pleasure center” was defined (the area in question is also related to anxiety, so one could reasonably argue bullies find bullying worrisome, not pleasurable).

The second half of the article is a plea for better science reporting, one that I hope is widely-read. Read it yourself here.



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