In every setting, people seem to instinctively know who the popular people in the room are. It turns out that brain function has something to do with driving popularity and social status, according to researchers from the University of Columbia.
The researchers found that popular people are themselves aware of their own popularity and are keen to interact smoothly with others, knowing what others think about them. They are also more sensitive toward other people's popularity, which helps them adjust their behavior accordingly when around other popular people.
For the experiment, they recruited 13 volunteers each from two student organizations and asked them to rate how much they liked the other people in the group. The researchers used the volunteers' answers to know who the most popular people in the group are.
Next, the volunteers were shown a series of faces in quick succession -- about one second per picture -- and were told to identify if the person was from their organization or not. The researchers included composite faces as control. The volunteers' brains were scanned by functional MRI (fMRI) while they went through the test.
When study volunteers looked at the pictures of popular people, fMRI scans showed a pattern in two brain systems. The first is the ventral striatum, amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with reward and motivation.
This suggested that people generally assess how a person is liked by others regardless of whether they like the person or not. If the person is perceived as popular, people are drawn to that person and want to be associated with him or her because of the benefits of interacting with that person.
Interestingly, this tendency increased when people are popular themselves; the more popular a person is, the more motivated he or she is to be affiliated with other popular people. Additionally, popular people showed more sensitivity in detecting who is popular in a group, allowing them to choose whom they want to be close to.
The second brain system that showed a pattern was the temporoparietal junction, precuneus, and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, which is associated with how we assess the intentions and feelings of others. Being more aware of the state of others, particularly those who are popular, helps people establish networks with them.
"The emotional evaluation system really holds the key to unlocking the popularity of group members and tells the social cognition systems, 'hey this is a person with whom I can expect rewarding interactions', triggering the person to think about what the popular individual's thoughts, intentions, and feelings are," study author Kevin Ochsner said in a press release.
The team presented the results of their study at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in 2014. Their study was also published online Nov. 23 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.