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.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

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.

© 2012 All rights reserved.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments