Harvard study suggests people take pleasure in bankers' pain

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If you're a banker in the City of London and you're hoping that the prospective decimation of your livelihood will discourage the good citizens of the United Kingdom from voting to leave the European Union tomorrow, bad luck. A new study suggests people outside the financial services industry are primed to derive pleasure from bankers' misfortune.

Harvard psychology students Linda Chang and Amy Krosch, along with assistant professor Mina Cikara, looked at how much areas of the brain associated with pleasure and pain are stimulated when test subjects see good and bad things happen to people they empathize with, or not.

Typically, individuals empathize with members of their own racial grouping, noted the academics. If you show someone a photo of a hand from their racial "in-group" that's being pricked by a pin, they'll exhibit "sensorimotor contagion" in their own hand muscles (their hand will tense) - even if the hand that's pricked is purple.

This all changes, however, if you show people a photo of a banker. - Specifically if you show them a photo of a test subject who seemingly comes from a "stereotypically competitive, high-status group" like banking, accompanied by information on that person's good fortune. In this case, the academics found that pleasure centres of the brain light up when the banker experiences something bad. "Using facial electromyography, we have found that participants smiled more when negative events happened to stereotypically competitive, high-status group members," noted the academics. More worryingly, they found that participants' brain activity suggested, "a willingness to harm those same competitive, high-status targets."

It's all down to feeling threatened. High status bankers are seen as threats to be diminished. It doesn't bode entirely well. As Mark Boleat, chairman of the City of London Policy and Resources Committee, told the Wall Street Journal this week: "If you said bankers might leave, some people might cheer.”

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