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updated 4/23/2008 1:01:16 PM ET 2008-04-23T17:01:16

Competitive types who get a buzz from climbing the social ladder also feel more pain when they plummet to a lesser rung. That's according to new research suggesting our brains are hard-wired for hierarchy.

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Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) set up an artificial social hierarchy, or ranking, in which 72 participants were assigned a status representing their supposed skills at a computer game. Then, participants saw pictures and scores of an inferior and a superior player.

Brain scans showed that when a superior player's image popped up, participants' brains were activated in areas thought to guide interpersonal judgments and social status — basically, sizing up others.

When a participant outperformed a superior "other player," brain regions responsible for action planning were activated. Brain regions linked to emotional pain and frustration showed activity in participants when they performed worse than a supposed inferior player.

Participants also answered questionnaires throughout the game.

Turns out, the "high" that a person feels at the top of the hierarchy can turn into a major downer at the bottom. Individuals who reported more elation while at the top also showed increased activity in the brain's emotional-pain circuitry when they performed worse than another player, threatening their status.

"Such activation of emotional-pain circuitry may underlie a heightened risk for stress-related health problems among competitive individuals," said study team member Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg of NIMH.

The NIMH-funded study will be detailed in the April 24 issue of the journal Neuron.

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