Monkey Business: Can Science Explain Our Celebrity Obsession?
Imagine the following situation. You're standing in a crowded checkout line at the grocery store when your eye catches sight of the magazine rack. Each magazine is filled with glossy photos of Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Britney Spears, and other equally attractive and famous celebrities. You pick up a copy of The National Enquirer and start casually flipping through it, only to realize that you could easily move to another checkout line which has just opened up. But for some reason, you don't move. You would rather wait in line looking through your tabloid than move to an open line and therefore leave the grocery store sooner. Why is this? Is it simply because you like to look at pretty people? Is it perhaps your predilection for gossip? Or is it something else?
With the intention of trying to understand how the brain obtains and processes visual data regarding social status and how this information affects decision-making, neurobiologists have recently provided an answer to this burning question (1). In the groundbreaking article entitled "Monkey Pay-Per-View: Adaptive Valuation of Social Images by Rhesus Macaques," published in the March 2005 issue of Current Biology, Duke University Medical Center researchers Michael Platt, Robert Deaner, and Amit Khera found that thirsty monkeys forfeited their favorite juice in order to view computer images of the dominant, alpha monkeys of their group. On the other hand, these same monkeys were unwilling to give up the juice to view images of subordinate monkeys; in fact, the monkeys demanded "overpayment" of the juice to view their lesser counterparts (2).
Such findings permit one to distinguish between reflexive mechanisms and social mechanisms which are responsible for regulation of our behavior (3). The kind of activity which the monkeys participated in involves instant social acuity, not merely reflexive action. This is a rather interesting differentiation, which seems to go unnoticed, for the most part, in the way we humans view our actions and the causes of these actions. One assumes that one has virtually complete control over one's behavior, however so much of what we label as a product of free will is in fact a reflex or a deep-seated cognitive impulse hardwired in the brain from birth. From an evolutionary standpoint, an animal's social cognition is gradually developed from selectively acquired information, which is put to good use when the animal is pressed to make a decision. By virtue of such engagement mentioned earlier, the monkeys display a highly sophisticated mode of social interaction, comparable to the behavior of humans.
Platt commented with regard to the significance of this experiment and its applicability to people: "So, what we now have with these monkeys is an excellent model for how social motivation for looking is processed in normal individuals. And, it's a model that we can use to explore neurophysiological mechanisms of those motivations in a way we can't do in humans" (4). Considering Platt repeatedly uses the term "model," this may cause one to question the magnitude of the scientific progress actually made here in this study. If this study established a model, is it still a work in progress? Could it benefit from any revisions or improvements?
In addition to revealing the intricacies of the brain's "social machinery," the "Monkey Pay-Per-View" study could also practically assist in our developing understanding of disorders like social anxiety and autism (4). In social anxiety disorders and autism alike, the neurological mechanism which processes information related to social status and interaction is disturbed (1). This may explain, at least to a certain extent, the lack of interest in social interaction exhibited by people suffering from these two disorders. Moreover, individuals with social anxiety disorder and autism derive little motivation from other people. In turn, this deficiency makes it difficult for these people to relate to others and experience interaction on a sophisticated level (4). The prospect of gaining a better understanding of such disorders through the "Monkey Pay-Per-View" experiment and similar studies like it render the hope of treatment possible.
So the next time you're standing in a checkout line at the grocery store, think about what it means for your brain to pick up that latest copy of The Star. Monkey business? I think not.
1) http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/WaterCooler/story?id=623557&page=1; ABC News: Status-Conscious Monkeys Shed Light on Celeb Obsession
2) http://www.mind.duke.edu/files/sites/platt/pub/2341148909.pdf; Monkeys Pay-Per-View: Adaptive Valuation of Social Images by Rhesus Macaques
3) http://www.physorg.com/news11937.html; Monkeys Pay Per View
4) http://www.dukemednews.org/news/article.php?id=8409; Duke Med News: Monkey "Pay-Per-View" Study Could Aid Understanding of Autism