Human brain appears 'hard-wired' for hierarchy

April 23, 2008
Human brain appears 'hard-wired' for hierarchy
As they played games in the MRI scanner, pictures with rankings of other players and updated outcomes periodically flashed on the screen. Situations that could signal a fall in status activated circuitry known to process emotional pain and frustration. Credit: Caroline Zink, Ph.D., NIMH Genes Cognition and Psychosis Program

Human imaging studies have for the first time identified brain circuitry associated with social status, according to researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) of the National Institutes of Health. They found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in a pecking order – or simply views perceived social superiors or inferiors. Circuitry activated by important events responded to a potential change in hierarchical status as much as it did to winning money.

“Our position in social hierarchies strongly influences motivation as well as physical and mental health,” said NIMH Director Thomas R Insel, M.D. “This first glimpse into how the brain processes that information advances our understanding of an important factor that can impact public health.”

Caroline Zink, Ph.D., Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues of the NIMH Genes Cognition and Psychosis Program, report on their functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study in the April 24, 2008, issue of the journal Neuron. Meyer-Lindenberg is now director of Germany’s Central Institute of Mental Health.

Prior studies have shown that social status strongly predicts health. Animals chronically stressed by their hierarchical position have high rates of cardiovascular and depression/anxiety-like syndromes. A classic study of British civil servants found that the lower one ranked, the higher the odds for developing cardiovascular disease and dying early. Lower social rank likely compromises health through psychological effects, such as by limiting control over one’s life and interactions with others. However, in hierarchies that allow for more upward mobility, those at the top who stand to lose their positions can have higher risk for stress-related illness. Yet little is known about how the human brain translates such factors into health risk.

To find out, the NIMH researchers created an artificial social hierarchy in which 72 participants played an interactive computer game for money. They were assigned a status that they were told was based on their playing skill. In fact, the game outcomes were predetermined and the other “players” simulated by computer. While their brain activity was monitored by fMRI, participants intermittently saw pictures and scores of an inferior and a superior “player” they thought were simultaneously playing in other rooms.

Although they knew the perceived players’ scores would not affect their own outcomes or reward –and were instructed to ignore them – participants’ brain activity and behavior were highly influenced by their position in the implied hierarchy.

“The processing of hierarchical information seems to be hard-wired, occurring even outside of an explicitly competitive environment, underscoring how important it is for us,” said Zink.

Key study findings included:

-- The area that signals an event’s importance, called the ventral striatum, responded to the prospect of a rise or fall in rank as much as it did to the monetary reward, confirming the high value accorded social status.

-- Just viewing a superior human “player,” as opposed to a perceived inferior one or a computer, activated an area near the front of the brain that appears to size people up – making interpersonal judgments and assessing social status. A circuit involving the mid-front part of the brain that processes the intentions and motives of others and emotion processing areas deep in the brain activated when the hierarchy became unstable, allowing for upward and downward mobility.

-- Performing better than the superior “player” activated areas higher and toward the front of the brain controlling action planning, while performing worse than an inferior “player” activated areas lower in the brain associated with emotional pain and frustration.

-- The more positive the mood experienced by participants while at the top of an unstable hierarchy, the stronger was activity in this emotional pain circuitry when they viewed an outcome that threatened to move them down in status. In other words, people who felt more joy when they won also felt more pain when they lost.

“Such activation of emotional pain circuitry may underlie a heightened risk for stress-related health problems among competitive individuals,” suggested Meyer-Lindenberg.

In collaboration with other NIMH researchers, Zink and colleagues are planning follow-up studies to explore brain activity in response to the experimental social hierarchy in patients with mental illnesses like schizophrenia or autism, which are marked by social and thinking deficits. The researchers will also be exploring whether particular gene variants might differentially affect brain responses in similar experiments.

Source: National Institute of Mental Health

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superhuman
not rated yet Apr 24, 2008
Provide size of the samples and how other possible explanations were ruled out, theres to many idiotic social 'science' to take such articles seriously without being able to at least verify the assumptions and statistics behind them.

For example where is the proof that subjects really interpreted results in terms of social hierarchy? What authors think was associated with social status can simply be an anticipation of difficulty of the game - since player rank is linked to gaming ability if you see a player higher ranked you know he won more games therefore you anticipate tougher game and enjoy victory more, loosing to inferior player is also more frustrating.
Cheshire
not rated yet Jul 16, 2009
n=72 per the article.

The study results are consistent with prior research. For example, "people who felt more joy when they won also felt more pain when they lost." is consistent with Kahneman and Tversky's Prospect Theory, which predicts the pain of losing would be more than the joy of winning (for the same amount of gain/loss). That would be true for opponents of near or equal rank. The research aupporting Prospect Theory suggests that it takes a gain of about 2 to equate to a loss of 1. In the context of the study, that would mean that beating a significantly higher ranked opponents would provide the same joy as losing to that opponent.

As we can observe hierarchal ranking in most social mammals, the suggestion of a genetic link is not surprising.

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