Our Brains Can Recognize Powerful People At Lightning Speed

In a social hierarchy, it helps if you can spot the ones who hold the cards.

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Laura Simmons - Editor and Staff Writer

Laura Simmons

Editor and Staff Writer

Laura is an editor and staff writer at IFLScience. She obtained her Master's in Experimental Neuroscience from Imperial College London.

Editor and Staff Writer

older woman stands giving a presentation to a group of colleagues seated round a table in a boardroom

The workplace is just one example of the social hierarchies we humans have to navigate.

Image credit: fizkes/

Humans, like many of our fellow primates, exist within complex social structures. It’s an essential part of who we are. Even very young children routinely use statistics to figure out the dynamics of their friendship groups. There are lots of reasons why it’s useful to figure out who within these social hierarchies holds the most power, and a new study has found that our brains seem to be able to do that astonishingly quickly.

It all has to do with how we perceive dominant people. Dominance draws our attention: previous research has shown that we spend more time looking at dominant people than lower-status people during social interactions. Complementary brain imaging studies showed that this was backed up by increased activity in areas associated with attention. What scientists couldn’t establish using these methods was the timing of this effect. Do we figure out who the dominant characters are very quickly after seeing their faces, or does it take a bit more cognitive processing?


Now, researchers at the University of Queensland have published a study that demonstrates how our brains recognize dominant individuals with astounding speed.

“We measured electrical activity in the brain while participants played a game alongside other individuals who were either a lot better or a lot worse than them, or so they thought,” explained first author Dr Alan Pegna in a statement sent to IFLScience. “The brain processed ‘better’ players within two-tenths of a second after seeing their faces.”

The study involved 28 people, making them play a computer game that tested their reaction time. While playing the game, they were told that a shorter reaction time could win them some virtual cash, and that they would be ranked against four other players who’d participated on a previous day. 

What the players didn’t know was that their own score was being randomly designated as a “win” half the time, and a “loss” the rest of the time, so they would always end up in the middle of the pack. After 10 rounds, they were presented with their own average score, plus the scores and photographs of their four competitors – but there was another catch.


“The set of photos were of young actors and their performances were made up, so some were consistently better than the participant while others were consistently worse,” Dr Pegna revealed. 

“The electrical activity of the brain was measured when the photos of these dominant and non-dominant players appeared on the screen. The results showed that after playing for several minutes, the brain began to respond differently to the view of the dominant, but not the non-dominant individual.”

Areas of the brain within the limbic system, which regulates mood and controls our responses to strong emotions like fear, were particularly associated with increased activation patterns.  

The study authors do highlight a few limitations to the research, such as an inability to take into account possible sex-related differences in participants’ responses, but the results provide evidence that social dominance is processed very early on when our brains are introduced to new faces.


This is important because, as humans, we frequently find ourselves in situations where it’s useful to quickly get a sense of who are the “leaders” and who are the “followers”. 

“These findings explain why our brains are wired to rapidly identify those who are in a position of leadership,” said Dr Pegna. “This could be applied to all interactions such as in the workspace, at school or in sports activities.”

The study is published in Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience.


  • tag
  • brain,

  • psychology,

  • dominance,

  • attention,

  • social,

  • social structure