Behavioral scientists have known that social dominance depends at least partly on one’s ability to make decisions faster than other people.
This skill would allow the individual to act first in social situations, which might confer an evolutionary advantage. Dominant individuals, for example, tend to climb higher up the hierarchy ladder of their particular society, earning priority access to resources.
But do dominant individuals exhibit this fast decision-making ability outside of social contexts? Researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have conducted a large behavioral study on men to examine this question.
Their findings show a clear correlation between higher social dominance and faster decision-making outside of a social competition context.
The study involved 240 male students at EPFL and the University of Lausanne (UNIL). The men were divided into high or low dominance groups by a standard “dominance scoring” questionnaire that has been validated in many previous studies.
Decision-making speed was measured with five experiments testing the participants’ memory, recognition, ability to distinguish emotions, route-learning and responsiveness.
The first task involved discriminating between people’s emotional expressions. Next the participants completed a memory and recognition task in which they were asked to remember and recognize a series of faces.
In the third task, participants worked on learning and remembering a route, and in the fourth controlled experiment, the participants were asked to hit the spacebar on a keyboard as soon as they saw a grey square appear on a screen. In this part of the study, neither group appeared to be faster than the other.
The researchers then conducted a fifth experiment designed to identify neural signals that might show differences between high- and low- dominance participants. To do this, the researchers measured brain signals with a high-density electroencephalogram (EEG).
The participants were asked to distinguish between happy and sad faces and then angry and neutral faces, while the EEG measured how their brains’ electrical signal changed in relation to how fast or slow they performed each task.
The findings show that, in high-dominance men, promptness to respond was accompanied by a strikingly amplified brain signal around 240 milliseconds after seeing the faces, compared to low-dominance men.
In addition, when the researchers analyzed the EEG images of the high-dominance men, they found higher activity in areas of the brain associated with emotion and behavior, compared to low-dominance participants.
The study suggests that high-dominant men respond faster in situations where a choice is needed, regardless of social context. This promptness in decision-making can act as a “biomarker” for social disposition.
“In the future, it will be important to find out whether even stronger brain signals are observed in particularly dominant individuals, such as CEOs,” said researcher Dr. Carmen Sandi.
“It will also be relevant to understand whether these differences in promptness to respond and brain signals are also observed in women that differ in dominance and whether they are already present in children. Our findings may open a new research approach using EEG signatures as a measure for social dominance.”