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7 September 2011
Peer group pressure hardwired into male brain
by George Atkinson

Men take stupid chances when their friends are watching that they would never take by themselves, a behaviour that researchers say is because the rewards outweigh the risks - when you're in a group, anyway.

According to a new study appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the human brain places more value on winning in a social setting than it does on winning when alone. Led by Georgio Coricelli, from the University of Southern California, the researchers measured activity in the regions of the brain associated with rewards and with social reasoning while participants played a lottery game.

The researchers found that the striatum, a part of the brain associated with rewards, showed higher activity when a participant beat a peer in the lottery, as opposed to when the participant won while alone. The medial prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with social reasoning, was also more activated. Those participants who won in a social setting also tended to engage in more risky and competitive behavior in subsequent lotteries.

"These findings suggest that the brain is equipped with the ability to detect and encode social signals, and then, use these signals to optimize future behavior," said Coricelli.

As Coricelli explained, in private environments, losing can more easily be life-threatening. With no social support network in place, a bad gamble can spell doom. In group environments, however, rewards tend to be winner-takes-all. "Among animals, there are strong incentives for wanting to be at the top of the social ranking," Coricelli said. "Animals in the dominant position use their status to secure privileged access to resources, such as food and mates."

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Source: University of Southern California




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