Our own social status influences the way our brains respond to others of higher or lower rank, says a new study.
People of higher subjective socio-economic status show greater brain activity in response to other high-ranked individuals, while those with lower status have a greater response to other low-status individuals.
These differences register in a key component of the brain's value system, a region known as the ventral striatum.
"The way we interact with and behave around other people is often determined by their social status relative to our own, and therefore information regarding social status is very valuable to us," said Caroline Zink of the National Institute of Mental Health.
"Interestingly, the value we assign to information about someone's particular status seems to depend on our own status," added Zink.
The findings in humans are largely consistent with earlier observations in monkeys. Researchers had shown that monkeys direct their attention to others of higher or lower status depending on their own position in the troop.
Zink's team wanted to know whether this principle holds in humans. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure brain activity in the ventral striatum while research participants of varying social status were shown information about someone of relatively higher status and information about someone of relatively lower status. Those studies showed that the brain's response to status cues varied depending on an individual's own subjective status.
"The value that we place on particular status-related information-evident by the extent our brain's value centers are activated-is not the same for everyone and is influenced, at least in part, by our own subjective socioeconomic status," said Zink.
"As humans, we have the capacity to assess our surroundings and context to determine appropriate feelings and behavior," said Zink.
"We, and our brain's activity, are not static and can adjust depending on the circumstances. As one's status changes, I would expect that the value we place on status-related information from others and corresponding brain activity in the ventral striatum would also change," added Zink.
The study has been published in the Current Biology.