The Situationist

Mapping the Social Brain

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 16, 2008

What goes through your head when you hear that you have a good reputation or find out that your social status is slipping? Researchers are starting to find out. By examining brain activity through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), two groups of researchers report how our brains respond to information about reputation and social status in the journal Neuron this week.

Caroline Zink, a neuroscientist from the National Institute of Mental Health, and colleagues developed a simple game in which participants played for money. The participants were competing against themselves only. The researchers told the players, however, that other people happened to be playing the same game simultaneously and then gave the participants information about how well they were doing compared to these other players.

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When participants in Zink’s study viewed a superior player, regions of the brain associated with social-emotional processing–like the amygdala–were activated. “If you think about it, it makes sense that you wouldn’t have the same kind of emotional response if it was a computer,” Zink says.

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Researchers also recently mapped the neural response to reputation. “Although we all intuitively know that a good reputation makes us feel good, the idea that good reputation is a reward has long been just an assumption in social sciences, and there has been no scientific proof,” says Norihiro Sadato, a researcher at the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Aichi, Japan and author of another study in Neuron this week.

Sadato and colleagues report that when people are told that they have a good reputation, regions of the brain associated with the reward are activated. A good reputation prompts a similar neural response to a monetary reward. “We found that these seemingly different kinds of rewards (good reputation vs. money) are biologically coded by the same neural structure, the striatum,” Sadato writes in an email

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