for The Independent (UK) on Nov. 25, 2007
Gore Vidal once said that to succeed is not enough – others must also be seen to fail. Now scientists have demonstrated the innate truth behind this maxim.
A study of the brain's "reward centre" has shown that men get the biggest buzz from a monetary prize when they know that it is a bigger award than that received by someone else.
The findings indicate that it is not the increase in a person's pay packet that is important but whether or not that increase is bigger than those of other people. This could explain the tide of resentment towards the recent pay rises of GPs and hospital consultants.
Professor Armin Falk, an economist at Bonn University, said that the findings go against conventional theories about economic rewards, which suggest that it is the absolute increase in pay, rather than the relative one, that matters most.
"This result clearly contradicts traditional economic theory [which] assumes the only important factor is the absolute size of the reward," Professor Falk said.
The study, published in Science, involved 38 male volunteers who performed simple mental tasks inside parallel brain scanners. For correct answers, they were given a prize ranging from â‚¬30 to â‚¬120. Brain activity in a particular area was higher if a player received more money than his partner.