Learning Who’s Got Power and Who Doesn’t

A new study in the journal Neuron reveals how the brain figures out who’s who in the social pecking order, reports ScienceBlog.com:

“The work, which was led by researchers at University Collage London, shows that we use a different part of our brain to learn about social hierarchies than we do to learn ordinary information.

The study provides clues as to how this information is stored in memory and also reveals that you can tell a lot about how good somebody is likely to be at judging social rank by looking at the structure of their brain.

Primates (and people) are remarkably good at ranking each other within social hierarchies, a survival technique that helps us to avoid conflict and select advantageous allies. However, we know surprisingly little about how the brain does this.

Using brain scans, the researchers found that a part of the brain called the amygdala is specifically involved in learning information about social rank based on experience. Learning about social hierarchies seems to involve neural circuits separate from those used to learn hierarchy information of a non-social nature.

Participants who were better at learning about social hierarchies had an increased volume of gray matter in the amygdala compared with those who were less able.

Being able to interpret social rank is important for us to meet the challenging pressures of living in large social groups. Knowing where we fit into a social group determines how we behave towards different people. As well as offering new understanding of which brain circuits are involved in learning and storing this information, the findings reported in this study help to explain why some people are better at it than others.” (Read more here.)

Fascinating! So interesting to think that we learn about the nature of our social environment, and that some of us are more adept at this learning than others. This is the kind of capacity that psychologists Peter Salovey and John D. Mayer had in mind when they formulated the idea of “emotional intelligence.”

In the popular imagination, this concept has been watered down to mean “nice people can be successful too,” but Salovey and Mayer had something quite different in mind: some of us are better than others at reading and understanding the social and emotional sphere, and this ability can be used in positive and also in negative ways.

Returning to the study above, one can easily imagine that an acute awareness of who has power and who doesn’t could be used in a prosocial way (bringing into the group someone who is being excluded) or an antisocial way (ingratiating oneself with people who wield influence). If you’re interested in reading more, I wrote about how the idea of emotional intelligence has been distorted in Salon, here.

3 Responses to “Learning Who’s Got Power and Who Doesn’t”

  1. Yeah, that’s fascinating. I love noticing the little clues about rank that are embedded in corporate culture. For example, what kind of chair your desk has.

  2. Robin Payes says:

    Hi Annie,
    Wonder how this dovetails with this study on loneliness in Current Biology, “Brain Structure Links Loneliness to Social Perception”, where fMRI scans on those less adept at reading of social clues and social isolation shows up as less gray matter in left posterior superior temporal sulcus and the suggestion that there could be an app to cultivate better social awareness: bit.ly/X7LIP4. These would seem to be related skills. Could be that emotional intelligence is multifaceted – i.e., some people are good at reading the social order, others succeed at the top of it without awareness of people at lower ends of social order navigate it; and still others are not even part of that order? And what happens if we “learn” to navigate differently–can that lead to a more egalitarian society and is that an improvement? Lots of food for thought…

  3. Brandon says:

    Thanks for writing. I’ve taken both versions of Strengthsfinder (Now, Discover and 2.0), and it continually reinforces my view that I am just built to be one of those who either wants to be liked by everyone in the group at all costs or enjoys finding folks on the fringe to bring into the group (empathy / WOO); sadly, over the years I only lead when forced into the position by circumstances… it’s quite interesting to introspect these pieces of information and compare them to legitimate studies.

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