by Sam McDougle

A young physics graduate student is sitting at a table of undergrads.  He is telling a joke about mathematicians.

He begins confidently. “How can you tell when a mathematician is an extrovert?

A wide-eyed sophomore quickly asks “I dunno…how?”

Smiling, he replies, “He looks at your shoes when talking to you!”

The undergrads chuckle.  Some genuinely laugh, others pretend to get it.  The grad student relishes in his successful attempt at humor – the students are putty in his hands.  Suddenly, his gratification is interrupted when a prolifically published professor joins the table and, with a penetrating squint asks what joke he missed.

The grad student, who greatly admires his superior’s accomplished reputation (though barely knows him) becomes stressed, blushes and fumbles over the joke.  The professor giggles in an act of mercy, nods at the enthralled undergrads, and hastily moves on.

We can all relate to situations like these – when poise quickly turns to angst at the mere presence of a superior.

Humans, like many other primates, live in a social hierarchy.  This hierarchy exists in all areas of our lives: our families, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces (academia struck me as a noteworthy example, thus, the above vignette).  We continually jockey between positions of dominance and subordination, and our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors seem to be at the mercy of this balancing act.  So it’s no surprise that new research reveals a vast neurological divergence when we’re confronted with, respectively, “superior” and “inferior” individuals.

Consider this article by Caroline Zink et al, published in the most recent issue of Neuron.  The researchers used a simple competitive task (i.e. clicking a blue circle as soon as it changed color) to establish an experimental, skill-based hierarchy (clicking faster = better) among participating subjects (Zink et al, 2010).

The subjects were pitted against two competitors, and all three were ranked relative to each other.  Each task consisted of three phases: viewing a photo of one of the other players, playing the game, and viewing the outcomes. FMRI readings were taken to measure brain activity during the tasks.  (note – while this experimental “social” situation may seem unnaturally plain, it succeeds in focusing in on the very common scenario of an inferior-middle-superior hierarchy).

Their results characterized greater activation in several important brain regions at the sight of a superior individual compared with an inferior one:

“Brain activity when viewing a more superior player compared with viewing a more inferior player was significantly greater in occipital/parietal cortex, ventral striatum, and parahippocampal cortex, implicating these brain areas in the neural encoding of hierarchical rank.”

These structures (specifically, the occipital/parietal cortex and ventral striatum) have been correlated with greater attentional processing.  The medial prefrontal cortex, an area cited for its role in social cognition (especially an individual’s status relative to others) exhibited heightened activity when the player was confronted with a superior, as did vital emotional processing areas (i.e. the amygdala).  In other words, peers representing an “inferior” role in a given social hierarchy represent an “inferior” role in the brain as well.

The author’s made another intriguing finding by conducting a control experiment where the “rank” of each player stayed static regardless of their performance in the game. It turned out that the prospect of rank mobility (analogous to “social mobility?”) had a strong effect on the heightened brain activity linked to confronting a superior.  The potential to “overtake” a superior player (or be overtaken yourself) made the brain work harder in the areas mentioned above.

These results paint a familiar picture:  When faced with a superior, our emotions are heightened, our attention sharpened, and our social position closely analyzed.  This effect is amplified in situations where your own status is subject to change.  Think of the last time you met a superstar in your field or an artist you greatly admire.  Did their status not stir your emotions? Did you find yourself paying close attention to your words while carefully tracking their reactions?  Did you, on leaving the encounter, dwell on the possible social advantages or disadvantages gleaned from the confrontation?  If your answer to these questions is unequivocally no, I would guess you are either being untruthful or have a rare, and somewhat enviable, phenotype rendering you apathetic to status.


Zink’s model certainly carries over to our primate cousins. Baboons closely watch their superiors and often ignore their inferiors. They also exhibit increased stress when their hierarchies are in flux (especially individuals in superior positions).  Chimps are very sensitive to hierarchical structure as well.

Even though we often want to avoid these feelings and conceal any interest in social status (“I don’t care what people think about me!”), I believe we’re stuck with our status fascination.  This data seems to say we’re built for it.

It would be remiss to not mention human variability in these behaviors. There are certainly individual differences when it comes to one’s feelings about status – we label some individuals as persistent “social climbers,” and other’s as “shoegazers” (*subcategories: those who gaze at their own shoes and those who gaze at yours).  Differences aside, our fixation on status is clearly reflected in the brain – we may not all be mathematicians, but, like it or not, we are all statusticians.

Portrait of Philip II, King of Spain

About the author

Sam McDougle

SAM MCDOUGLE is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology and Neuroscience at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in Vice and The Atlantic.

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  • Fantastic post! Whenever I hear people saying “I don’t care what others think of me,” I quickly sum them up as either dishonest or majorly bereft of self-awareness. We all clearly do care. And it dictates a phenomenal amount of our behaviours throughout everyday life.

  • I’m compelled to draw a correlation between the increased brain activity and what I believe to be the inevitable improvement in performance by the so-called “inferior” participant.
    We see it in recreational sports, watching professionals play before hitting the tennis courts or the golf course seems to increase our chances of success. Playing against someone who is more experienced or skilled than ourselves activates our competitive nature, whether we are attempting to prevail over our opponent or our preconceived limitations.
    Whether in regard to business, sports or entertainment, working alongside our “superiors” appears to be the fast track to success.
    That said, I guess I gaze at others shoes quite a bit, thankful that I will never run out of things to learn.

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