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See Inside April/May 2008

Even Better than a Personal Best

Why showing up a peer is more satisfying than succeeding alone

If you have been trying to keep up with the Joneses, you are not alone—it seems we are all wired that way. Researchers report that the social emotions of envy and gloating are much stronger on every measure than are the sentiments of relief and regret, which are felt privately.

A team led by economist Aldo Rustichini of the University of Minnesota used skin conductance to measure volunteers’ emotional arousal as they played a lottery game either alone or with a partner. The investigators found that the subjects’ emotions of gloating and envy (as they compared their winnings with those of a peer) were much stronger than their emotions of relief and regret (as they played the lottery alone). The social emotions seem to elicit more response from the orbito­frontal cortex and the basal ganglia, brain regions involved in processing reward, according to preliminary data from the team’s separate fMRI study.

Gloating topped all other emotions in intensity. “There is more emotional impact if you beat someone else,” says Rustichini, who carried out the study with neuroscientists Nadège Bault and Giorgio Coricelli of the National Center for Scientific Research in France. The root of our delight in bragging rights could be evolutionary, Rustichini explains: “Among animals, a higher position in ranking helps in competition for food and mates, and humans may share some of this concern.”

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