Men and Status: This Is Your Brain on Status

The following is a reprint of an article by Brett McKay that appears in the Art of Manliness web site.

Our brains are constantly scanning our respective social worlds to figure out how others perceive us and where we fit into the hierarchy at any given moment. We’ll talk about why that is in a later article, but today we’re going to take a look at what this activity looks like neurologically.

The reason we know that our brains are constantly gauging our relative status is because scientists have put people in fMRI machines, subjected them to various social situations, and recorded the resulting neurological activity. For example, in one experiment, two people were asked to lie in an fMRI machine while taking part in a cooperative computer game. One player was in fact a confederate of the researchers and was instructed to become uncooperative or simply start ignoring his fellow participant. Researchers then observed the rejected player’s brain activity.

Granted, these kinds of experiment are very artificial; participants must lie inside bulky machines and cannot move around and talk with others face-to-face. But while measuring neurological activity in actual, day-to-day social encounters is not yet possible, the current research does give us a good idea of what goes on in our brains when interacting with others and how we evaluate our status in those encounters.

The MPFC: Our Brain’s Sociometer

What researchers have found is that our brains have a built-in “sociometer” consisting of different areas that measure our social status at any given moment. The social measurement begins in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). This surprised researchers at first because previous fMRI experiments suggested that the MPFC was used in things like daydreaming, planning, and ruminating — introspective activities not normally directly associated with status.

But if you step back and think about it, it makes perfect sense that the part of the brain responsible for self-reflection would be involved in how we figure out where we reside in the social hierarchy. To determine our standing compared to others, we need to have some self-awareness about the traits we have that might either enhance or detract from our status. These include our personality, our looks, our skills, and even our tastes and preferences.

But a personal awareness of our traits isn’t enough to determine our social status — we also need to gauge how others perceive our traits. Research suggests the MPFC is also involved in this calculation. Because we can’t read other people’s minds perfectly, the assessment it offers is a rough estimate gleaned from the direct and indirect messages people send our way. If someone compliments or criticizes our looks, we can feel fairly certain they do or do not find us attractive. Signals as to how others perceive us can be more subtle too — an extra effort to laugh at our jokes or a scornful chuckle at our attempt at being skillful.

When we encounter this kind of feedback, the MPFC sends a signal to one of two parts of the brain: the striatum (responsible for positive rewards) or the insula (responsible for negative rewards), and we experience either positive social emotions like pride and esteem or negative social emotions like shame and embarrassment. These social emotions work with the MPFC to determine which traits you possess that are most relevant to your status in a given situation. So if you’re an obese, champion Minecraft player, you may feel positive feedback when you triumph over your digital competitors. But if you were suddenly foisted into a special forces combat unit, the fact that you lack the traits necessary for high status among a bunch of badass commandos would come into sharp relief, triggering feelings of shame and embarrassment.

How the MPFC Calculates and Predicts Status

Not only does the MPFC make on-the-fly calculations of our current social status, it also predicts how certain actions will affect our standing.

Experiments done by Steven Quartz at the California Institute of Technology and highlighted in his book Cool, show that our MPFC lights up significantly more when we look at some consumer products over others. Quartz hypothesizes that the MPFC calculates which product would give a person more status, and then responds accordingly. If the item would potentially increase your status, the MPFC sends a signal to the reward processing striatum, and you feel good imagining yourself owning that product. If the item would likely decrease your status, the MPFC sends a signal to the negative reward processing insula, and thinking of owning that item makes you feel embarrassed. So for example, the MPFC of some folks will activate more when they look at a sports car, than when they gaze upon a minivan; their brain gets a feel-good boost as they imagine being inside the cockpit of a coupe, whereas picturing themselves behind the wheel of a minivan induces a subtle sinking feeling.

Quartz’s experiments also suggest that our brains react more strongly to actions that would likely decrease our status than they do when we think about actions that would increase it. That is, the thought of owning a minivan gets a stronger reaction from the MPFC and insula, than thinking about owning a Corvette provokes the brain’s reward centers. We’ll dig into this phenomenon a bit more later on, but it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that this is so. We have more to lose from low status (ostracism and potentially death) than we have to gain from high status (after a certain point, accumulating greater resources provides only a marginal increase in utility). As we all learned in high school, you don’t need to be super cool to survive and thrive, you just can’t be super lame.

Culture, of course, heavily influences what the MPFC will respond to in terms of status. If owning a sports car is considered super cool in a culture, well, then a person from that particular culture will have an MPFC that responds much more strongly to Ferraris than a person in a culture where cars don’t convey status. Folks who live in cultures where knowing how to fell a tree conveys high status will have MPFCs that respond strongly to videos of men felling trees; in a culture where knowing how to fell a tree doesn’t have any bearing on your status, such videos will garner little response.

Besides reacting more strongly to certain behaviors or products depending on culture, our MPFC also responds more strongly according to whether or not there’s an audience present. In one experiment, researchers asked a person if the following statement was an accurate description of themselves: “I wouldn’t hesitate to go out of my way to help someone in trouble.” Some of the participants answered the question without anyone else seeing their response. Others knowingly revealed their answer to two strangers who were watching in a room next to them via video feed. The result? When the test subjects revealed an affirmative answer to an audience, their MPFCs lit up more strongly than when they kept their answers to themselves. Furthermore, when the participants revealed their positive answers not to strangers, but to those they personally held in high regard, their MPFCs and reward striatums activated even more strongly. This confirms something you’ve assuredly noticed in your own life: while we generally care about the opinions of others, we particularly care about the opinions of people who really matter to us.

The above research hits home the point I made in the first article of this series: status is relevant and context specific. I don’t care about my status in computer programming skills compared to a master programmer. I’m not a computer programmer, and I don’t hang out with them on a regular basis. There’s no relevance to me, so my MPFC probably doesn’t light up when I think about computer programming. But as a guy who makes his living online writing for and about men, I do care — even though I try not to — about how I stack up against other bloggers, particularly men’s lifestyle bloggers. That skill and those folks are more relevant to my sense of identity and my overall success. So when I’m thinking about how other men’s blogs are doing, though I tell myself I’m indifferent, I’m pretty sure my MPFC is in overdrive.

While the MPFC is scanning our social environment starting in early childhood, development of the MPFC doesn’t get going until adolescence. Which isn’t surprising. We’ve all been self-conscious teenagers and have all experienced those middle school years when one’s awareness of social status becomes overbearingly acute. The reason teenagers start caring more about what their peers think of them and less about what grown-ups think is due to the development of their MPFCs and their newfound sensitivity to status.

Serotonin: The Feel Good Hit for High Status

The most important neurotransmitter connected to status is serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate appetite and sex drive, as well as one’s mood. Individuals with low serotonin levels are often cranky, aggressive, and depressed, which is why they are sometimes prescribed antidepressants designed to boost this neurotransmitter.

Serotonin levels are influenced by genetics and lifestyle factors like stress, sleep, and diet. But one of the biggest factors impacting the amount of serotonin in the brain is whether you think others perceive you as having high status. Serotonin feels good, and whenever we experience boosts in our status, serotonin floods our brain, and we become more confident, relaxed, cooperative, and pro-social. That groovy, connected feeling encourages us to seek more status.

Researchers have found in both primates and humans that serotonin levels rise as status rises, and decreases as status decreases. For example, dominant male vervet monkeys have twice as much serotonin in their blood as non-dominant males. When the dominant male is overthrown, his serotonin drops and his replacement’s serotonin levels surge dramatically. In humans, researchers have found that individuals in leadership positions have higher serotonin levels than their subordinates. For example, in one study researchers found that fraternity officers had 25% more serotonin than the other members in the fraternity.

Drops in serotonin are also found in humans when they experience status defeat. Simply getting negative feedback from people you care about can cause your levels to drop. This is why getting snubbed or criticized by those you care about can make you feel so dang miserable. (Another factor is that rejection triggers the parts of the brain responsible for pain; and I’m talking actual physical pain — the kind of pain taking a Tylenol will help alleviate. Our whole body reacts surprisingly strongly to status defeats.)

The serotonin boost that accompanies high status only activates when you perceive that others are displaying submissive behavior towards you. Researchers know this because they found they could deplete the serotonin levels of a dominant vervet monkey by putting him behind a one-way mirror. The alpha monkey could see his peers, but his peers couldn’t see him. Mr. Alpha Monkey made dominant gestures, but because his fellow monkeys couldn’t see him, they didn’t respond with signals of submission. Without this ego-stoking feedback, Mr. Alpha Monkey’s serotonin levels dropped, and he started to get really anxious. When the mirror was removed, his levels began to rise again.

A similar mechanism works in humans. We need to see others display submissive behavior towards us to get the serotonin shot that comes from status. For people, submissive behavior comes in various forms. Bowing to someone or calling them “sir” is a form of submissive behavior, but so is simply giving a compliment, or even liking someone’s Facebook status. (We don’t think of giving this kind of positive feedback as submission, but when we compliment someone, we acknowledge that they have or did something of value that may make them superior to us, even in a slight, subtle, and temporary sense.) Just like monkeys, if we don’t get any signals that others perceive us as having high status, we’re not going to get a serotonin boost. Just because you think you’re an alpha male, doesn’t mean you’ll feel like one.

So gaining status can give us more serotonin, which encourages us to seek more status, but can it also work the other way around? That is, does having high serotonin levels to begin with lead to higher status?

Researchers explored this question by artificially increasing serotonin levels in vervet monkeys. The monkeys that received the spike became much calmer and more sociable, but they didn’t immediately become the dominant male. Instead, the injected monkey began engaging in pro-social behaviors, like grooming and gift giving, which eventually led to dominance in a few weeks. So instead of having an immediate, direct effect on status, serotonin seems to have a more indirect effect by encouraging behavior that can eventually lead to elevated status.

Think about happy-go-lucky people, who likely have higher amounts of natural serotonin in their brains; their calm, cooperative dispositions often ingratiate them to others, and can lead to higher status. Depressed folks, on the other hand, who have lower levels of serotonin, frequently can’t work up the motivation to socialize, and act out in angry and aggressive ways; this works to isolate them from others, and lower their status in the social hierarchy. (Depressed individuals, however, who use this solitude to master some skill or work out a solution to a cultural problem, can emerge from their retreat to attain higher social status in a different way. See: Abraham Lincoln.)

Alpha Males on Serotonin: Calm But Paranoid

The popular conception of alpha males is they’re overly aggressive brutes who maintain their power through force. But research on both chimps and humans tells a different story.

Scientists know that as an individual increases in status, serotonin levels increase in turn. They also know serotonin reduces aggression and increases pro-social behavior in both chimps and humans. So it should follow that the friendliest and most calm chimp or human should be the alpha in a particular group. And that’s exactly what researchers have observed again and again. In male chimps, the alpha male rarely uses aggression to maintain his status. Instead, he grooms other chimps, gives gifts, and patrols the perimeter, warning of possible dangers. In short, he’s calm, friendly, and protective.

But while alpha male primates are calm for the most part thanks to serotonin, studies have found that they also have elevated cortisol levels in their system. Researchers believe this is due to the alpha male’s need to always be on the lookout for would-be pretenders to his throne. Having to keep his eyes open to possible usurpers makes the alpha a bit paranoid and anxious. His elevated serotonin levels blunt the desire to act out aggressively, while increased cortisol levels up his stress. The alpha male’s life thus ends up being one of calm but constant vigilance.

So what about low-status males?

Because they have lower serotonin levels, they’re much more irritable and more likely to use aggression to gain status. In chimps, it’s the low-status, low-serotonin males that are more likely to pick fights and take risks like jumping from tree to tree. Low-status males simply have more to gain from violent aggression than high-status males, who have more to lose by engaging in such behaviors.

Similar patterns have been found in humans as well. High-status men tend to be calm, cooperative, protector types. In my work on AoM, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of former Navy SEALs and special forces operators, and to a one, they’ve been the nicest guys you could meet, with little of the aggressive, irritable edge stereotypically associated with “alpha” males.

Low-status men, on the other hand, typically have lower serotonin levels, which in turn makes them more cranky and aggressive. Researchers have conducted experiments that have shown that low-status men are much more likely to use showy displays of aggression (yelling, insulting, violence) to try to gain status than men who already have high status.

The sad irony is this aggressive approach to status actually keeps many of these same men in their low-status positions. Insulting and bullying may get you some status in the short-term, but in the long-term it just creates resentment, which will eventually result in a status decrease. Even chimps won’t put up with overly aggressive alpha males for very long. In one experimental group, a male chimp aggressively started jonesing for the alpha position. A few days later, that would-be alpha was dead.

Instead of using bullying and aggression, low-status males would be better off trying to find ways to demonstrate how they’re valuable to the group. If they focused on being useful, rather than important, eventually, the importance they crave would come.

Conclusion: Status is More Than Just a Social Construct

As you can see, status isn’t merely a cultural construct. Our brains are wired to pay attention to status and to seek it out. The neurological nature of status explains a lot about why we often act the way we do.

When we feel confident in a group that appreciates our strengths, but embarrassed in a group that highlights our weaknesses, that’s the MPFC at work assessing our place in their respective hierarchies.

When we feel more motivated to not be seen with a “loser” than we are to befriend the popular people, that’s our brain reacting more strongly to a potential status loss, than a possible status gain.

When we post something we think is smart or funny to Facebook, and it’s left flapping in the wind without any likes from our friends, the twinge of anxiety we feel is our brain reacting to a small status defeat and its accompanying drop in serotonin.

While these effects are instinctual, they’re not impossible to tamp down. When you compare how sensitive you were to status in middle school, to how much you care about it now, it’s easy to see that we can use our capacity for reason to manage these neurological inclinations. Getting a handle on these ingrained predispositions is an assuredly difficult task, but a necessary one if we wish to make decisions that are in line with our values and goals.