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The neuroscience of Sheldon Cooper

September 6, 2015 by Martha’s Dad

sheldon-5405409Of all the characters on TV, Dr Sheldon Cooper (brilliantly portrayed by Jim Parsons) in The Big Bang Theory regular tops polls of the most selfish characters we love but would find insufferable to be around. Indeed, in this years round of “silly summer season” online polls, Sheldon only sometimes comes second to Anna Gunn’s character, Skyler White, in Breaking Bad.

Personally, I don’t see Sheldon as all that selfish, but he is certainly portrayed as an egotist whose belief in his own brilliance frequently leads to acts of selfishness as he constantly strives to come out on top.

Selfishness and the willingness to cheat others to attain one’s goals have long been studied by psychologists and the most common focus of research is on the personality train of Machiavellianism, for which many psychometric tests have been developed over the years.  “High-Machs” are willing to tell people what they want to hear simply to achieve their own ends, they are extremely narcissistic, and they think nothing of betraying others because, basically, they assume everyone else is out to stab them in the back too. Yep, I can see strong elements of this in Sheldon’s personality, particularly in the way he often behaves toward characters such as Howard, Kripke or the real-life actor Wil Wheaton!

A new study by Tamas Bereczkei and his colleagues, published in Brain and Cognition, sheds a little more light on the neuroscience underpinning the Machiavellian personality type. The study uses a novel experimental design in which volunteers screened for Machiavellianism take part in a two-phase investment simulation.  In the first phase, each volunteer is paired with an anonymous partner (in reality, a computer simulation) who takes the part of a trustee. Basically, the volunteer gives the trustee money to invest, then subsequently receives a mix of both fair and unfair returns on that investment.  Then, in the second phase of the experiment, roles are reversed and our volunteers become the trustees.  The logic is simple – the second phase provides and opportunity for our volunteers to take revenge on their partners for the unfair returns, High-Machs being predicted to be more likely to do this.

The results are pretty much as we might expect…  High-Machs do indeed display a tendency to get-their-own-back to a far greater extent than Low-Machs, and they generally cheat more as a matter of course.  The really interesting thing about this study, however, is that the experiment involved the use of neuro-imaging techniques to explore what was actually going on in the brains of the volunteers during the process.  The results show that Low-Machs display increased arousal in particular areas of the brain only when on the receiving end of a blatantly unfair return-on-investment, responding accordingly when presented with an opportunity to turn-the-tables.  By contrast, the High-Machs appear to be always more aroused in the exact same brain regions, hence the tendency to always be striving to come out on top.  Oh, and as we would anticipate, pretty much all of the High-Machs in the study ended up with more money than the Low-Machs at the end of the experiment!

So what’s going on here?  Well, psychologists have long-suspected that High-Machs are constantly more alert in these type of situations, searching for social cues that will signal an opportunity to “get-one-over” on those around them.  This study takes us a step closer to understanding where this alertness stems from biologically and, by examining related brain areas, there’s an opportunity here to study related personality traits too.  Sheldon and Skyler and remarkable characters and, one day soon, we may better understand what is literally going on inside their heads – if we really want to know, that is!