I think I’ve found the research that BBC Breakfast managed to turn into a complete non-story last week.

As I suspected whilst not-so-quietly seething my way through the Beeb’s item, the research into social superiority does throw up some interesting points.

The BBC’s info-tainment approach focused on the snobbery element (it gave them a chance to put in a clip of Keeping Up Appearance after all), but there are some intriguing questions thrown up by the research.

Carried out by researchers from the American National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the human imaging studies have identified brain circuitry associated with social status.

They found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in a pecking order – or simply views perceived social superiors or inferiors. Circuitry activated by important events responded to a potential change in hierarchical status as much as it did to winning money.

“Our position in social hierarchies strongly influences motivation as well as physical and mental health,” explained NIMH Director Thomas R Insel.

Key finding of the NIMH study include:

  • The area that signals an event’s importance, called the ventral striatum, responded to the prospect of a rise or fall in rank as much as it did to the monetary reward, confirming the high value accorded social status.
  • Just viewing a superior human “player,” as opposed to a perceived inferior one or a computer, activated an area near the front of the brain that appears to size people up – making interpersonal judgments and assessing social status. A circuit involving the mid-front part of the brain that processes the intentions and motives of others and emotion processing areas deep in the brain activated when the hierarchy became unstable, allowing for upward and downward mobility.
  • Performing better than the superior “player” activated areas higher and toward the front of the brain controlling action planning, while performing worse than an inferior “player” activated areas lower in the brain associated with emotional pain and frustration.
  • The more positive the mood experienced by participants while at the top of an unstable hierarchy, the stronger was activity in this emotional pain circuitry when they viewed an outcome that threatened to move them down in status. In other words, people who felt more joy when they won also felt more pain when they lost.

A few interesting points that the BBC Breakfast debacle never came close to covering.

I must admit I have never had much time for social hierarchies. Having interviewed all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds, who are doing a wide variety of jobs (or not in the case of a few Royals) I’ve always adopted the same approach to the task in hand.

I have not – knowingly, at least – altered my style of working simply because they are a CEO, a Lord or Lady, a Prince, a Sir or a Dame, a lollipop lady, a traffic warden or a road sweeper. All are equal in my journalistic eyes, at least I like to think that is how I feel.

But, given the results of this new research, perhaps I have subconsciously and subtly altered my approach to suit the perceived social standing of the interviewee.

The next time I’m in the presence of a big-wig I’ll keep a closer eye on myself.


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