Low Competitive Status Elicits Aggression in Healthy Young Men: Behavioral and Neural Evidence

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2021 May 7;nsab061. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsab061. Online ahead of print.


Winners are commonly assumed to compete more aggressively than losers. Here, we find overwhelming evidence for the opposite. We first demonstrate that low-ranking teams commit more fouls than they receive in top-tier soccer, ice hockey, and basketball men's leagues. We replicate this effect in the laboratory, showing that male participants deliver louder sound blasts to a rival when placed in a low-status position. Using neuroimaging, we characterize brain activity patterns that encode competitive status as well as those that facilitate status-dependent aggression in healthy young men. These analyses reveal three key findings. First, anterior hippocampus and striatum contain multivariate representations of competitive status. Second, interindividual differences in status-dependent aggression are linked with a sharper status differentiation in the striatum and with greater reactivity to status-enhancing victories in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Third, activity in ventromedial, ventrolateral, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is associated with trial-wise increases in status-dependent aggressive behavior. Taken together, our results run counter to narratives glorifying aggression in competitive situations. Rather, we show that those in the lower ranks of skill-based hierarchies are more likely to behave aggressively and identify the potential neural basis of this phenomenon.

Keywords: aggression; competition; fMRI; neuroimaging; status.