How Popular People’s Brains Are Different

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Photo: ABC

Have you ever wondered how the popular, influential people in your classroom or office managed to get where they are? Common sense suggests they’re probably just very friendly and fun to be around, but an intriguing new brain-imaging study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers a hint that there’s something deeper going on. The research showed that popular people all have one thing in common: Their brains are more sensitively attuned to other people’s popularity. One reason popular people are popular, it seems, is because, at a neural level, they care about popularity. Meanwhile, the rest of us seem to get a neural kick just from looking at the top dogs, helping explain how, once established, these kind of unofficial hierarchies tend to stick.

For their experiment, Noam Zerubavel and his colleagues at Columbia University recruited 26 members of two student clubs. To start, they had each person rate how much they liked each other person in their club. Tallying these scores, the researchers could rank all of the participants by popularity. Next, the students lay in brain scanners and looked at photos of the faces of their peers, as well as an occasional “ghost face” — a morphed average of all of the other faces. The students thought their task was to press a key as quickly as possible on each presentation to indicate whether a given face was a real person or a ghost face. In reality, the researchers were only interested in looking to see how their brain activity varied according to the popularity of the person they were currently looking at.

The researchers had two main questions: whether participants’ brains responded differently to photos of popular people, and whether popular people’s brains responded differently to the exercise, overall, as compared to those of their less popular counterparts. Some interesting results popped out on both fronts.

For one thing, the participants did tend to show more brain activity in a reward- and motivation-related brain network — a network that also lit up when participants received money in a different part of the experiment, or expected to — when they were looking at the faces of popular peers, regardless of how much they liked that person themselves. The fact that this “valuation system” network, as the researchers call it, was excited when participants looked at faces belonging to popular peers suggests that at a fundamental level we compute how well-liked someone is by others, quite separately from our judgment about whether we like them ourselves, and if we deduce that they are popular, then automatic motivational processes kick in. As a result, speculate the researchers, we might be drawn to people simply because they’re popular, even if we don’t particularly like them, and this tendency may “motivate[] proximity and preferential attention to popular individuals as well as incentivizing interactions with them.”

But note, not everyone showed this brain-based sensitivity to a person’s popularity to the same degree. In fact, how much someone was neurally tuned to the popularity of other people’s faces depended on how popular they were themselves — less popular students tended to show a similar level of reward-related brain activation regardless of whose face they were looking at, while popular students showed a strongly graded response: The more popular the face they were looking at, the more reward-related activity they showed. Zerubavel and his team said this could be taken as a sign of “enhanced social attunement” in popular people — indeed, these people were also better at accurately judging how well liked they were by others. It could also mean that the more popular you are, the more enjoyment you get from affiliating with other people near the top of the social ladder.

In other words, it seems there is something different about the brains of high-status, popular folk: They seem to have neural responses that are more sensitive to social structure. Indeed, it’s possible that this may help explain how they came to be popular in the first place — if they’re more aware of who’s out and who’s in, they can better select whom to hang out with and whom to shun. We need more research to test this, specifically research that looks to see if a person with more neural sensitivity to social status tends to get more popular over time. Such a finding would certainly fit with prior psychological research that’s shown popular children tend to be more aware of who’s popular and who isn’t.

There was another distinct way that people’s brains responded to popular faces (this time not dependent on their own popularity levels). The more popular a face, the more neural activity participants showed in the “social cognition system” involved in understanding other people and what they think of us. Moreover, activity in this and the previously described valuation system network were related, suggesting that the more we care about a person’s popularity, the more inclined we are to try to understand what they’re thinking.

These new findings complement similar results from animal research. In one telling study, for instance, macaque monkeys were willing to give up fruit juice for the chance to look at pictures of the faces of high-status peers — but they wanted extra juice to look at low-status faces. Another related study found that teens’ gaze automatically centered on photographs of the faces of their popular classmates, rather than unpopular ones. Taken together, these results show how popularity can spiral. The implication is that once you’re well-liked and in with the in-crowd, at a neural and behavioral level people will automatically be drawn to you, regardless of their own “rational” feelings toward you.

It’s also interesting to contrast what we’re learning about popularity with what we’re learning about loneliness. In recent high-profile studies of loneliness, for example, researchers have found that lonely people’s brains become more sensitive to social threats. Zerubavel and his team’s research hints at a similar process going on at the other end of the social spectrum. Popular people’s brains seem to work in ways that help bolster their status, and meanwhile the rest of us are apparently neurally wired to behave in ways that help entrench existing social hierarchies — once someone has achieved a certain level of popularity, this status grants them a certain social allure, we instinctively pay them more attention, and thus a kind of popularity feedback loop is set in motion. Lonely people, on the other hand, may have their brains working against them, causing them to shy away from social contact that would improve their lives and make them feel better about themselves.

From a neurological and psychological perspective, then, there seems to be growing evidence that both popularity and loneliness are self-perpetuating.

Dr. Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer), a Science of Us contributing writer, is editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.