Popularity and Your Brain
Whereas the fields of psychology, sociology, and anthropology have extensively studied group dynamics and popularity, neuroscience is barely starting to scratch the surface. Although the role of power in social status has been well-investigated, research into popularity has been minimal. However, recent research by Kevin Ochsner of Columbia University is exploring how likability determines social status within a group. Using previously established social groups (specifically student organizations), Ochsner used individual ratings to determine which students were the most liked among each group. Then, using fMRI, Ochsner measured each students’ brain response to pictures of the other students in the group.
Ochsner found that how much the displayed student was liked correlated with the activity of two brain systems: the emotional evaluation and reward system centering on the ventral striatum, amygdala, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and the social cognition system, centering on the temporopariatal junction, precuneus, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. The activity of the former could be explained by the brain recognizing previous pleasure from interactions with those who are likable, and anticipating further rewards. The latter could come from the social awareness required to understand and be cognizant of the complexities of social interactions, and how they could be most advantageous.
Not only were these two systems associated with how well-liked the pictured individual was, but the strength of activity was also associated with the likability of the person being studied. In other words, if an individual is more likable, their brain reacted more strongly to another likable person. This may be indicative of social awareness, allowing popular people to better tailor their behavior to others. However, it is unclear whether likability causes an increase in activity or vice versa.
Work such as that of Ochsner has the potential to unlock the neurological keys to group dynamics and popularity. Not only that, but it could inform us on the underlying causes behind deficits in neural function. Perhaps it could even lead us to discovering how we can affect popularity and group dynamics by manipulating brain activity.
- Tom Meeus
Social circuits that track how we like people, ideas – Science Daily