by Edward Quinn
These are the sorts of questions Cloutier et al. (2012) set out to answer. In a study with 40 male undergraduates from the University of Chicago, the researchers tested autonomic nervous system activity in response to presentation with faces of varying social status. The social status of each face was indicated by the background color on which the picture of the face was superimposed. All participants were trained to associate particular colors with a particular social status (low, medium, and high). While viewing these faces, electrocardiographic and impedance cardiography data were collected to measure heart rate variability (HRV) and the pre-ejection period (PEP). HRV was used as a measure of parasympathetic nervous system activity, while PEP was used as a measure of sympathetic nervous system activity. Together these measures were used as indexes of activity in the two branches of the autonomic nervous system (the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems). The researchers also collected information on the subjective financial status of each participant, to see how this affected autonomic response to viewing someone of high, low, or medium social status.
The HRV data (which extrapolates to parasympathetic nervous system activity) showed that response to faces and associated social status depended on the subjective financial status of the perceiver. High subjective financial status participants showed a negative change in parasympathetic activity when viewing faces of medium or high status, but not low status. A decrease in parasympathetic activity has previously been associated with stressful circumstances, so the researchers suggest that for a person of high status, it may be the prospect of competition or threat to one's social status that induces the decrease in parasympathetic activity when viewing faces of medium- and high-status. The researchers interpret this as a "cost" of having high subjective financial status.
The PEP data (which extrapolates to sympathetic nervous system activity) also showed that response to faces and associated social status depended on the subjective financial status of the perceiver. High subjective financial status participants showed a decrease in sympathetic response when viewing low- and medium-status faces, but not high-status faces. An increase in sympathetic activity has been associated with challenges or threats, so a decrease in sympathetic may indicate security or self-confidence. Indeed, the researchers interpret the PEP data as an indication that high subjective status participants feel self-confident and secure when presented with low- and medium-status faces, but not high-status faces.
All of the usual criticisms of psychology apply to this study. The participants were all young undergraduates, and are not a representative sample of any population. Experimental conditions did a poor job of reflecting cultural realities, as social status was depicted with a background color, and not with all the things that actually convey social status in real life (material goods, accents, etc.). Standard criticisms aside, I think you have to start somewhere, and this is a good start to the investigation of how social status is embodied. Neuroanthropologists could build on this sort of work by asking people what the cues of social status are in their particular cultural context. Perhaps these locally meaningful cues might have more of an impact on the nervous system when incorporated into an experimental design than passive presentations of background colors. Better yet, neuroanthropologists might combine the collection of autonomic data using portable technology with naturalistic observations of people as they move throughout the day, interacting with people of varying social status. These are the types of data (ethnographic, naturalistic, etc.) neuroanthropologists should aim to gather in their research. Combinations of such data will lead to new understandings of the enculturation of the nervous system and demonstrate the value of a neuroanthropological perspective.
Cloutier, J., Norman, G. J., Li, T., & Berntson, G. G., 2013. Person perception and autonomic nervous system response: The costs and benefits of possessing a high social status. Biological Psychology, 92, pp.301-305.
Worthman, C.M., 1999. Emotions: You can feel the difference. Hinton, A. Biocultural Approaches to the Emotions, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp.41-74.