We have all seen it happen, when someone gets a taste of power they want more and more. Some could say that they become addicted. Recent research in neuroscience has shown that this maybe the case as the feeling of power has been found to have a similar effect on the brain to cocaine. Social power or high social status have been found to change the brain by triggering increased levels of testosterone and its by-product 3-androstanediol in both men and women. This in turn increases the level of dopamine in a part of the brain’s reward system called the nucleus accumbens, which can be extremely addictive. Similarly, when cocaine enters one’s system it also increases the level of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, which can lead to similar levels of addiction as social power.
Morgan and colleagues illustrated this relationship (social power and cocaine) by firstly developing a hierarchy amongst monkeys then examining how susceptible they were to cocaine addiction. The monkeys’ dopamine levels were taken when each were individually housed (no social hierarchy) and then when they entered social housing (where a social hierarchy organically emerged). Results showed that the dopamine levels of the individually housed monkeys did not differ, whereas once these monkeys were socially housed the dominant high social status monkeys showed a significant increase in the levels of dopamine in their system compared to the submissive low social status moneys.
The researchers then introduced these monkeys to cocaine and allowed the monkeys to self-administrate. They found that the low-status subordinate monkeys administered significantly more cocaine than the dominate high social status monkeys. The authors noted that as the dominant monkeys had such a high level of dopamine in their system, they did not need the boost of dopamine that cocaine gives as much as the submissive, low-dopamine monkeys. These studies show how alterations in one’s social status can produce significant biological changes including vulnerability to cocaine addiction and how, in fact, social status can be as addictive as cocaine!