I’ve been trying to work this tidbit into a post for weeks, but I haven’t found an opportune moment. So here’s the news straight up: new studies suggest that a single part of the brain evaluates both money and social status.
Sadato and colleagues conducted fMRI scans of the brains of 19 subjects while they engaged in two different exercises. The first task was a simple game in which participants had to choose one of three cards in the hope of winning a cash prize. In the second game, fictional evaluators appraised volunteers’ characters based on the results of personality trait questionnaires. The researchers found that the striatum activated in response to high and low appraisals (but did not perk up to more neutral comments); it also responded to monetary wins and losses but was quiet if a player broke even.
“The implication of our study is that the different types of the reward are coded by the same currency system,” says Sadato, “enabling the comparison between them.”
To me, this finding (if it’s confirmed) raises all sorts of interesting questions about the relationship between wealth and social standing. Does society equate the two simply because we use the same part of the brain to process both? Or is it the reverse—do our monkey brains map money to status simply because society does as well? Either way, this sheds some light on the all-too-human tendency to equate wealth with worth: they’re both minted coin of the same mental currency.
In a more practical vein, these findings may also have some bearing on the fact that economic inequality makes people sick. The standard economist’s view of the inequality-health connection is that economically unequal societies tend to have highly unequal distribution of health care, healthy food, and so forth. By this view, economic inequality denies some people the resources they need to stay healthy. But perhaps the connection is more direct: if the human brain simply perceives relative poverty in much the same way that monkeys perceive low social status, then poverty could breed ill health in humans in exactly the same way that low status breeds illness in our primate relatives. In both cases, it could be the physiological stress associated with low social status that’s the real health risk, not privation per se. I’m sure that’s too much to read from a single study; but still, it’s broadly consistent with some academics’ approach to the subject.