Why your Brain Locks Up around High Status people

By on January 18, 2016
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Awkward moment at the party…

You decide to go to a friend’s party one night with the intention of meeting new people and having a good time.  Upon arrival, your friend greets you, ushering you back into the kitchen for a drink.  There are a lot of people, many of which you don’t know.  Suddenly your friend introduces you to a guy/girl that just walked into the kitchen.  You are immediately attracted to this person and would like to spend more time with them.  But as soon as you reach out to shake their hand, you drop your glass and it shatters on the floor.  You are embarrassed, and your new acquaintance assures that it was an accident.  You try to make a joke about a slippery drink, but the words come out stilted and awkward.  Later in the party, you get the chance to talk more.  But you’re so nervous that you forget key information to the story you are telling. You have enough confidence to keep the conversation going, but something is off…

Perhaps you have had an experience like this.  Maybe you experienced similar awkward behavior around a high profile business associate or a celebrity.

Why do these types of people have this power over us?

Let us turn to the experts.  Robert Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist at Standford that has done years of research regarding social status and stress with wild baboons in Africa. He found stress hormone levels correlated with an animal’s status within the group.  Generally, the individuals that had more control over life circumstances experienced less stress hormones.

Sapolsky notes that humans belong to a social group type that uses psychological intimidation rather than physical aggression to maintain superiority.

Brain Activation Changes based on Perceived Status

A group at Harvard recently showed that the brain has different activation patterns based on how a subject perceived their status in relation to other individuals. Those that perceived themselves to be lower status activated parts of their brain related to self-referential thought.  This suggests that being around high status people made the low-status individuals engage in “self-conscious” thought. Rather than enjoying the company, they became worried about their actions, generating stress hormones and potentially making the situation worse.

Stress leads to increased cortisol in the blood

Cortisol has been found to impair autobiographic and working memory almost immediately. It also reduces attention capacity and decision making skills.  In the long term, chronic exposure to stress hormones has even been shown to reduce the size of the brain’s memory centers. One can see why the brain malfunctions in situations around high status individuals if not handled correctly.

High Status Brains

In contrast, the brain scans of people that perceive themselves as “high status” showed activation patterns more reflective of observation of others, instead of themselves.  Rather than being intimidated and self-conscious, the high status individuals were able to engage their mental energy in properly evaluating others; something that is a critical skill in running a business and managing teams of people.

How can you use this to your advantage? 

If you find yourself nervous around “important people”, remember that we are all just apes running around on a rock, trying to make sense of the world.  Different types of people certainly deserve your respect and admiration, but remember that we all put our pants on in the morning, one leg at a time. The next time you are intimidated, take a deep breath and gain acceptance of the nervousness and continue forward.  Being exposed to these individuals with increased frequency will decrease these feelings over time.

This information was produced in my Project Napoleon editorial that is available with other resources in the download section of www.techforpsych.com


About Cody Rall

Physician & Brain Researcher Cody developed a healthy respect for the natural world as a youth raised in Alaska. In his teenage years, he would spend weeks in the Alaskan wilderness with his father, hunting moose and other big-game animals. Cody later developed a preference to photograph wildlife and study the world through science. As an undergraduate, he worked with model organisms in a molecular genetics laboratory, experimenting with DNA expression. At the same time, Cody was learning about health and fitness by competing in bodybuilding shows. Through modifying his own body with exercise and diet, Cody developed first- hand, invaluable insight towards human physiology. He then attended medical school in Chicago, IL to combine his passion for science, health and people. During his medical school studies, Cody found new passion in the brain sciences.