I vividly remember a conversation I had with a London cab driver just before the election that unseated John Major (Conservative party) and elected Tony Blair (Labor party). I asked him who he was going to vote for, fully expecting him to make a “rational” decision and vote his economic interests. But, to my astonishment, he was going to vote for the conservatives. Why? I asked in disbelief. The answer was shocking to me. I’ll paraphrase: “because we, working-class blokes, should know our place. The Aristocrats have been running this country forever, and they have done a bloody good job at it. And every time [a] labor got its hands on power, they made a bloody mess.”

This episode was etched in my memory, so incredible and yet so profound it was. How to explain such reverence to social hierarchy? Is it a product of generations of social brainwashing? Shakespeare, himself not an aristocrat or even a minor noble, portrayed with great disdain characters of low social standing who tried to reach beyond their class. But is it really just a function of culture? Did anything change in the USSR after the revolution, when all classes were abolished with the stroke of a pen (and a bullet, for added emphasis)? Definitely not. The peasant still “knew his place”, only the superior feudal, properly addressed as “Gospodin” ( sir, master), was replaced by a newly minted commissar, addressed as “tovarish” (comrade).

So if it’s not purely socio-cultural, what is it?

 

It’s all in your head

A wonderful paper was published in the latest issue of Neuron, the neurobiology magazine. It was authored by Caroline Zink, Ph.D, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, MD, Ph.D, and colleagues of the NIMH Genes Cognition and Psychosis Program.

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.

 

What did they find?

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 (prefrontal cortex), while performing worse than an inferior “player” activated areas lower in the brain associated with emotional pain and frustration (amygdala).
  • 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.

 

Surprise?

These findings are actually not very surprising. Anybody who ever observed monkeys and apes in their natural habitat could easily pick out the alpha male and female, and the submissive behavior of the rest of the clan. But a more detailed observation reveals subtle gradations in social standing among the “lower class” members. Each member of the clan “knew his or her place”, and acted accordingly. Furthermore, violations of the boundaries of social standing were promptly punished. Is it surprising then that a specific area in the brain, called the striatum, is dedicated to assessing one’s place in a group? Furthermore, it is located right behind the prefrontal cortex, the area that is making rational decisions based on the inputs that reach it from all areas of the brain. The proximity of the striatum to the prefrontal cortex reduces the time for a message to reach the decision-making circuits—a biological testament to the importance ascribed to social animals “knowing their place” in their society.

The experiment showing that in unstable hierarchies people at the top are just as anxious and stressed as people at the bottom is truly revealing. What is the societal equivalent to “unstable hierarchies”? Democracy, of course. Today, you are on top, but your position there is constantly challenged, and eventually, you have to give up your exalted position. Anybody who observed our presidents at the beginning of their term, and at the end, couldn’t fail but notice how much they aged. Even a clueless president like George W has aged noticeably.

What is truly remarkable in this study is the documentation of the existence of the “social brain”. It has long been hypothesized that areas in the brain are specializing in directing social interactions like emulation, attunement, empathy, and altruism. This study provides unequivocal neuro-anatomical proof.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.