This paper identifies the neural signature of social status and popularity in small groups. Using a new paradigm for social cognitive neuroscience, we show that social cognition regions of the brain track target popularity. Specifically, the more popular targets are, the more brain activation of perceivers in each region, linearly. This is also true for the valuation regions of the brain. Specifically, the more popular targets are, the more brain activation of perceivers in each region, linearly as well. Importantly, we find that the valuation system is the orchestrator of neural activity in response to status. The brain’s system for detecting goal-relevant – and therefore affectively salient – stimuli automatically appraises group members, translating their popularity into enhanced engagement of systems that analyze others’ faces and predict their mental states. One important implication of this work is that it is likely that the mechanisms we have uncovered play a role in the induction and reproduction of hierarchy, a stable and consistent feature of human and primate social groups.
Check out coverage on the study in
- Jarett, Christian. "How Popular People's Brains are Different." New York Magazine, December 2015.
- Sapolsky, Robert M. "Brain Reflexes That Monitor the Pecking Order." The Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2015.
Read the paper:
Noam Zerubavel, Peter S. Bearman, Jochen Weber, and Kevin N. Ochsner. Neural mechanisms tracking popularity in real-world social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2015 ; published ahead of print November 23, 2015, doi:10.1073/pnas.1511477112.