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Neural Mechanisms Tracking Popularity in Real-World Social Networks

Zerubavel, Noam; Bearman, Peter Shawn; Weber, Jochen; Ochsner, Kevin N.

Differences in popularity are a key aspect of status in virtually all human groups and shape social interactions within them. Little is known, however, about how we track and neurally represent others’ popularity. We addressed this question in two real-world social networks using sociometric methods to quantify popularity. Each group member (perceiver) viewed faces of every other group member (target) while whole-brain functional MRI data were collected. Independent functional localizer tasks were used to identify brain systems supporting affective valuation (ventromedial prefrontal cortex, ventral striatum, amygdala) and social cognition (dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, precuneus, temporoparietal junction), respectively. During the face-viewing task, activity in both types of neural systems tracked targets’ sociometric popularity, even when controlling for potential confounds. The target popularity–social cognition system relationship was mediated by valuation system activity, suggesting that observing popular individuals elicits value signals that facilitate understanding their mental states. The target popularity–valuation system relationship was strongest for popular perceivers, suggesting enhanced sensitivity to differences among other group members’ popularity. Popular group members also demonstrated greater interpersonal sensitivity by more accurately predicting how their own personalities were perceived by other individuals in the social network. These data offer insights into the mechanisms by which status guides social behavior.

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Also Published In

Title
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
DOI
https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1511477112

More About This Work

Academic Units
Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics
Sociology
Published Here
April 24, 2019