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How Your Brain Reassures You That You’re Better Than Other People

The “superiority illusion” may depend on how connected certain parts of your brain are and how many dopamine receptors you have

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Many of us have an inflated sense of self worth and are secretly reassuring ourself that we’re smarter, sexier, funnier or just generally better than the average masses. Psychologists call the natural tendency to assume you rank better than the norm the “superiority illusion.” A recent study in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences explored this curious phenomenon and looked at just what parts of the brain might be responsible for it, Scicurious writes for Scientific American.

The study’s authors investigated the relationship between the area of the brain where a person’s sense of self originates—the frontal cortex—and the area where feelings of reward come from—the striatum. The strength of the frontal cortex-striatum connection, they thought, may be correlated with a person’s sense of self-worth. They also wanted to figure out how dopamine—the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward processing—and its receptors fit into this picture.

What they found, Scicurious reports, is that people with more connectivity between the frontal cortex and striatum had a more realistic sense of self:

They showed that the amount of conntectivity in the fronto-striatal circuit was inversely related to how people viewed themselves. The more connectivity, the less people suffered from the superiority illusion.

The authors also showed that the decreased connectivity in the fronto-striatal circuit was correlated with decreased D2 receptor binding. So low connectivity and low binding are associated with a pretty good view of yourself. The authors think that the dopamine in the striatum acts on the D2 receptors to decrease the connectivity in the fronto-striatal circuit, resulting in a better view of yourself. So the more dopamine you have, the bigger of a decrease in connectivity, and the better the view of yourself.

Scicurious points out, however, that these results are only correlative. The researchers can’t say for sure that lower connectivity causes people to feel superior. But these findings do provide an interesting starting point for understanding our inner Narcissus.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Are Mind-Enhancing Drugs a Good Idea? 
How to Shut Off Bad Habits 

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