Instant Recognition: Brain Spots Power Players at Lightning Speed

Summary: Researchers made a significant discovery about how quickly our brains can identify people in positions of power.

The team conducted a study in which participants interacted with others perceived to be significantly better or worse at a particular game. The participants’ brains were found to process ‘better’ players in just a fifth of a second after seeing their faces.

This study demonstrates our brains’ incredible speed in recognizing and categorizing social hierarchies.

Key Facts:

  1. Our brains can identify dominant individuals in a social group within two-tenths of a second after viewing their faces.
  2. The area of the brain associated with processing fear is also engaged in identifying dominant individuals.
  3. This fast processing speed supports our ability to navigate complex social environments, such as the workplace or school.

Source: University of Queensland

Our brains can identify people in power at lightning speed, based on how we perceive dominant people, University of Queensland research has found.

Dr. Alan Pegna from UQ’s School of Psychology said recognizing how people are ranked in social groups is a key feature that helps us navigate our complex social environment.

“We measured electrical activity in the brain while participants played a game alongside other individuals who were either a lot better or a lot worse than them, or so they thought,” Dr. Penga said.

“The brain processed ‘better’ players within two-tenths of a second after seeing their faces.

This shows the outline of a head.
Dr. Alan Pegna from UQ’s School of Psychology said recognizing how people are ranked in social groups is a key feature that helps us navigate our complex social environment. Credit: Neuroscience News

“The findings demonstrate that our brains are geared towards processing hierarchy in our social groups. It also suggests that the part of the brain that is linked to processing fear plays a role when identifying dominant people.

“Humans live in social environments that function through the establishment of hierarchies, with individuals acting as leaders and others as followers.

“These findings explain why our brains are wired to rapidly identify those who are in a position of leadership. This could be applied to all interactions such as in the workspace, at school or in sports activities.”

The research team asked participants to play a computer game requiring them to respond to a change in color of an object appearing on a screen and their average speed was shown to them after 10 trials.

“At the same time, the results of fake participants along with their photos were provided to the participants,” Dr. Pegna said. “The set of photos were of young actors and their performances were made up, so some were consistently better than the participant while others were consistently worse.

“The electrical activity of the brain was measured when the photos of these dominant and non-dominant players appeared on the screen.

“The results showed that after playing for several minutes, the brain began to respond differently to the view of the dominant, but not the non-dominant individual.”

About this neuroscience research news

Author: Alan Pegna
Source: University of Queensland
Contact: Alan Pegna – University of Queensland
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Open access.
Hierarchical status is rapidly assessed from behaviourally dominant faces” by Alan J. Pegna et al. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience


Hierarchical status is rapidly assessed from behaviourally dominant faces

Recognition of social hierarchy is a key feature that helps us navigate through our complex social environment.

Neuroimaging studies have identified brain structures involved in the processing of hierarchical stimuli, but the precise temporal dynamics of brain activity associated with such processing remains largely unknown.

In this investigation, we used event-related potentials (ERPs) to examine the effect of social hierarchy on the neural responses elicited by dominant and nondominant faces.

Participants played a game where they were led to believe that they were middle-rank players, responding alongside other alleged players, whom they perceived as higher or lower-ranking. ERPs were examined in response to dominant and nondominant faces, and low-resolution electromagnetic tomography (LORETA) was used to identify the implicated brain areas.

The results revealed that the amplitude of the N170 component was enhanced for faces of dominant individuals, showing that hierarchy influences the early stages of face processing.

A later component, the late positive potential (LPP) appearing between 350–700 ms, also was enhanced for faces of higher-ranking players. Source localisation suggested that the early modulation was due to an enhanced response in limbic regions.

These findings provide electrophysiological evidence for enhanced early visual processing of socially dominant faces.

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