Cover Story

In sports, there's no shame in losing to a pro, but losing to an amateur stings, suggests new research in the April 24 Neuron (Vol. 58, No. 2).

The study's main authors, Caroline Zink, PhD, at the National Institute of Mental Health, and Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, MD, PhD, at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany, used fMRI to image the brains of 72 people as they played two different quick-response games.

In the first game, players quickly pressed a button when a light changed colors. The quicker they pressed the button, the more money they earned. Before the game, players took a test to determine their ranking (one star for inferior players, two stars for average and three for superior). Researchers then put them in groups with one of each level, even though each was playing his or her own game. The other players' scores didn't affect someone's own score; there was no direct competition. But while playing, participants were occasionally shown pictures of the other players and their scores.

The other players were computers, the outcomes predetermined and the rankings fixed so that all players thought they were average. Over the course of the first game, researchers recorded players' brain images when shown the others in their group. Participants' prefrontal, occipital and parahippocampal cortexes lit up much more when looking at the superior player than the inferior one--areas that appear to "size people up."

Essentially, players mentally created a hierarchy even though competition wasn't an explicit part of the game, Zink says. "Whether it's conscious or not, we're always comparing ourselves to others and creating hierarchal situations," she says.

--M. Price