Social status has a strong effect on motivation, behavior and overall well-being and health, but how the brain processes information about social status has been little understood. Now a National Institute of Mental Health study offers new insights.
In the study, published April 24 in Neuron, volunteers played an interactive computer game while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans. The players believed that others were playing the game in separate rooms; in truth, the other players were computer simulations.
Researchers created a social hierarchy by granting “stars” before the game began: One fictitious player was shown with more stars than the participant, while another had fewer. Sometimes participants could gain or lose stars; other times, no change could occur.
Subjects were told that a monetary reward would depend only on their scores, not on their ranking against other players. Nevertheless, the impression of inferior social status (when viewing a supposedly superior player) activated brain regions that focus attention, judge importance, promote memory and control actions. Seeing an inferior individual had no effect in those areas.
“Impending changes in status cause changes in the brain’s reward center that are just as strong as monetary reward,” says Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, who led the research team and is now working at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany.
When a change in status is possible, he says, emotional centers such as the amygdala become active. Impending moves down the social ladder activate the brain’s emotional-pain areas. Impending rises in status activate brain centers associated with planning for action.
These findings support other research that suggests high-ranking individuals are happier and healthier in stable hierarchies but face greater stress in unstable ones. “This study demonstrates the high importance that humans place on social status,” lead author Caroline Zink says.