Low competitive status elicits aggression in healthy young men: Behavioural and neural evidence

Macià Buades-Rotger*, Martin Göttlich, Ronja Weiblen, Pauline Petereit, Thomas Scheidt, Brian G. Keevil, Ulrike M. Krämer

*Corresponding author for this work
4 Citations (Scopus)


Winners are commonly assumed to compete more aggressively than losers. Here, we find overwhelming evidence for the opposite. We first demonstrate that low-ranking teams commit more fouls than they receive in top-tier soccer, ice hockey and basketball men's leagues. We replicate this effect in the laboratory, showing that male participants deliver louder sound blasts to a rival when placed in a low-status position. Using neuroimaging, we characterize brain activity patterns that encode competitive status as well as those that facilitate status-dependent aggression in healthy young men. These analyses reveal three key findings. First, anterior hippocampus and striatum contain multivariate representations of competitive status. Second, interindividual differences in status-dependent aggression are linked with a sharper status differentiation in the striatum and with greater reactivity to status-enhancing victories in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Third, activity in ventromedial, ventrolateral and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is associated with trial-wise increases in status-dependent aggressive behaviour. Taken together, our results run counter to narratives glorifying aggression in competitive situations. Rather, we show that those in the lower ranks of skill-based hierarchies are more likely to behave aggressively and identify the potential neural basis of this phenomenon.

Original languageEnglish
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Issue number11
Pages (from-to)1123-1137
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 01.11.2021

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