Thursday, May 08, 2008

Personality dominance: reflection in brain imaging and spatial attention

Here are two different takes, from the Journals Neuron and Psychological Science on correlates of human dominance hierarchies:
In the Neuron article, Zink et al. monitor the brain activity patters of gamers that form in response to status cues. They set artificial hierarchies by assigning 72 volunteers a skill rank in a computer game that flagged onscreen opponents as superior or inferior players. But the opponents were really computers, and the games and ranks were rigged so that status was only perceived. One finding was that brain regions associated with emotion or pain become busier when gamers are losing to inferior opponents. From their abstract:
....In both stable and unstable social hierarchies, viewing a superior individual differentially engaged perceptual-attentional, saliency, and cognitive systems, notably dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In the unstable hierarchy setting, additional regions related to emotional processing (amygdala), social cognition (medial prefrontal cortex), and behavioral readiness were hierarchical consequences of performance were neurally dissociable and of comparable salience to monetary reward, providing a neural basis for the high motivational value of status...results identify neural mechanisms that may mediate the enormous influence of social status on human behavior and health.

The article in Psychological Science deals with our tendency to represent dominance in vertical terms. This tendency is apparent in linguistic metaphor, anthropological data, sociological data, and scientific theories of personality dominance. The ubiquity of such mappings is consistent with the central postulate of the metaphor-representation perspective: that people must draw from the perceptual domain, as reflected in common metaphors, when attempting to represent abstract concepts such as dominance or power. Moeller et al. examine whether dominant personality correlates with performance on vertical versus horizontal discriminations.
Previous research has shown that dominant individuals frequently think in terms of dominance hierarchies, which typically invoke vertical metaphor (e.g., "upper" vs. "lower" class). Accordingly, we predicted that in spatial attention paradigms, such individuals would systematically favor the vertical dimension of space more than individuals low in dominance. This prediction was supported by two studies (total N = 96), which provided three tests involving two different spatial attention paradigms. In all cases, analyses controlling for speed of response to horizontal spatial probes revealed that more dominant individuals were faster than less dominant individuals to respond to probes along the vertical dimension of space. Such data support the metaphor-representation perspective, according to which people think in metaphoric terms, even in on-line processing tasks. These results have implications for understanding dominance and also indicate that conceptual metaphor is relevant to understanding the cognitive-processing basis of personality.

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