Social Sensitivity

Studies have shown that the following four traits are desirable, attractive, and place people high in social hierarchies: dominance, prestige, warmth, and competence. The studies (one found dominance and prestige, and the other found warmth and competence) present what is a very logical set of traits for being cool, popular, likable, and of high social status. Just think about how these traits might function in a tribal setting, or as leader archetypes. When it comes down to it, we’re a simple species.

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Social Sensitivity

In addition to being biologically predisposed to seek popularity due to greater dopamine receptor density, popular people have another interesting biological difference as compared to people with lower social status. The brains of popular people are more sensitive to social dynamics in their environment.

You may have wondered how the people you know with high social status achieved that level of popularity and influence. On a surface level, it probably seems that those people are simply friendly and fun to be around. Well, that is indeed the case. However, research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences probed deeper underneath these two positive traits. Scientists conducted brain-imaging studies that led to a recognition of a common denominator among the participants regarded as popular in their social clique. The findings suggest that there is likely something much deeper going on that we aren’t aware of.

The research was performed at Columbia University by Noam Zerubavel and a team of his colleagues. They recruited twenty-six student volunteers from two school clubs to participate and had each volunteer rate how much they liked every other individual in their club. The scores were compiled for each participant, and the final numbers were used to rank all of the members by likability or popularity.

The students then lay in brain scanners and were shown photos of the faces of their peers, in addition to an occasional “ghost face”—a morphed average of all of the other faces. As an experimental control, the students were told that their task was to instinctually press a key for each face that was presented, indicating whether they thought it was a real person or a ghost face. The reality, of course, was that the researchers only wanted to see how their brain activity varied according to the popularity of the person they were currently presented with.

There were two main issues at hand that researchers wanted to work out. First, they wanted to see whether or not participants’ brains responded differently according to the popularity of the person in each photo. After that, they wanted to analyze whether popular people’s brains, in particular, responded differently to the exercise relative to those of their less-popular classmates.

The results were interesting on both fronts.

Independently of their own popularity levels, when participants were shown photos of more popular peers, their brains subsequently displayed more neural activity in the “social cognition system” involved in understanding how other people think and perceive each other. This suggests that the more we care about a person’s popularity, the more motivated we are to consider and analyze what they might be thinking.

When it came to the more popular participants, images of their neural responses showed that they had even greater sensitivity to social structure. Their brains were more sensitively attuned to the popularity of others on a subconscious level. All of the participants showed different activity levels based on the popularity of the person they were looking at. However, those activity levels varied more widely in popular people than with unpopular people. This means they were more empathetic and self-aware of relationships across social groups. It also implies that popular people are, at least in good part, popular because they care about being popular on a fundamental level.

This lends a plausible explanation as to how these people ascended to popularity in the first place—having a sharper awareness of the popularity of others enables them to selectively align themselves with the people who have high social status. The finding is also in line with prior psychological research that showed popular children tend to be more aware of who’s popular and who isn’t.

It’s hard to sugarcoat that evidence—people, on average, simply seem to devote more cognitive resources to you the more social status you have. This can certainly explain why being popular is desirable, but it can also be a curse to somebody who attains higher social status and isn’t able to keep their ego in check when they inevitably get treated with greater regard.

At a fundamental level, this provides a solid explanation for how social cliques form and why it can be so difficult for somebody new to integrate themselves into a different clique. Part of being popular is hanging out with other popular people, and the members of your public social circle likely play a significant role in how your own popularity is perceived by others. How to become accepted within a particular social circle is another matter to be covered throughout this book. Nonetheless, understanding social status and what changes it is a key to popularity.

Dominance versus Prestige

The relationship between brain architecture and one’s socialization behavior doesn’t seem obviously apparent in our everyday lives, considering how much scientific research has been invested in this subject. It’s not as if we can measure our dopamine on an everyday, ordinary basis.

Predominantly, there are two modes in which we achieve social status—dominance and prestige. These two categorize our various approaches in terms of navigating through our social terrain. A careful consideration of these two factors, along with applying them in moderation, with proper timing, and in good taste, can help you move up any social hierarchy.

Dominance means being stronger, more intimidating, or more powerful than other people. Prestige, on the other hand, means being more skilled, successful, and knowledgeable than the average person. These are the traditional paths to being popular.

Most of us, if not all, became familiar with dominance while growing up. It may have seemed as if this is the best or even the only method of gaining the respect and admiration of our peers. Often, the schoolyard bullies who use intimidation, coercion, and fear-inducing tactics appear to be the top dogs. Meanwhile, the students who put in the effort to get high grades in school are rarely socially rewarded for doing so at the time, at least in Western cultures. Those who get good grades do, however, have greater opportunities for further education and more impactful careers down the line. As a result, they might be recognized and respected for their skills, success, and knowledge later in life.

Joseph Henrich and Gil White studied dominance and prestige within the context of sociology, sociolinguistics, ethnography, and ethnology. They found that the two paths to social status evolved separately and for different purposes. As such, these two modes manifest in varying degrees depending upon the situation, context, or the wider culture as a whole.

A person’s mental and physical dispositions will naturally determine which strategy— or which combination of the two—is most useful to employ in any given situation. Somebody who grows up in a less-progressive society or finds themselves in a highly adversarial environment, such as a prison, might find that the ability to intimidate others or enforce threats is the most effective way to reach the upper echelon of the social hierarchy. And of course, if a person has a tendency to challenge and fight, or has natural physical strength, you can guess which path they will take. For those who find themselves in social environments that lack dominance hierarchies, having the mental skills necessary to acquire knowledge and develop ideas that are valuable to society will make them more inclined to attain social status through prestige.

As mentioned, approaching social navigation in terms of dominance and prestige is a practical matter. We can fine-tune our social tendencies between the two poles. We can be mindful of them. We can also strive to be better with these two as a guide. You can consider for yourself what routes to take to increase your own social status. This requires an honest assessment of your traits, strengths, and weaknesses so you can effectively use what you’ve got and minimize flaws.

Keep in mind that there is no one rigid step-by-step way of doing things as much as there is no absolute right or wrong between the two approaches. Pitfalls abound in both options if not properly balanced, thoroughly self-assessed, and executed with grace and subtlety.

For example, you may gain some authority over others if you become extremely dominant like the big bully from grade school, but is that really worth it if you sacrifice a good deal of likability in the process? Will the stature you gain be worth all the resentment? Having a dominant role suggests a certain degree of responsibility and accountability. Your social base will expect you to provide results.

People tend to look up to a leader figure who assures everyone that everything is under control. People respond well to others who are confident and self-assured. When this is taken to the extremes of being cocky or self-absorbed, there will be a problem. Moreover, empathy is crucial and results do matter. Dominance implies that there will be expectations that need to be met.

On one hand, physicality may also play a major role in dominance, as somebody who is big in stature might have an easier time pulling off this trait than somebody who isn’t particularly tall or strong. But this aspect is bound to have nuances. How much of physical dominance is based on stature, and how much is based on visible health and fitness? An obese person who is six feet tall and weighs 250 pounds is a lot less intimidating, on average, than somebody who is also six feet tall and 250 pounds but is a bodybuilder, for example. Appearances are sometimes just that, appearances. Besides, strength may come in different forms. Physical strength doesn’t necessarily translate to strength of will.

So what about the prestige route? Although not as apparent, there are still plenty of pitfalls with this strategy.

Conceit doesn’t pay. An intelligent and knowledgeable individual will be much less likely to attain social status through prestige if they are constantly reminding people of how smart and successful they are. It often requires a good deal of finesse to make people aware of your intellectual prowess without giving off the impression of being arrogant or judgmental. And being highly skilled, successful, and knowledgeable won’t mean much socially if you don’t have the communication skills to convey your abilities in a way the average person can understand and appreciate.

The key here is to realize your goals of getting on top in a manner that is ethical, involves introspection, and is mindful of others. It is possible to take shortcuts to achieve some fast success, but it’s certainly not advisable. A person who needs to put others down in order to appear dominant will eventually end up just looking insecure and inadequate. A physical trainer without the knowledge or discipline to be healthy and fit personally will not be trusted by others who want to become healthy and fit themselves. Dominance and prestige are what people naturally look for, and you need to authentically increase your standing in both of those respects.

No matter how you choose to go about climbing up the social hierarchy, being genuine as well as conscious of how others perceive you throughout the process will certainly increase your odds for success. None of us were born with brains tailor-made for social success; none of us were born able to play basketball professionally, either. That doesn’t mean we can’t improve upon our natural traits and take an advanced leap or two into what we know is instinctually valued.