Sci is...a really competitive person. I'm so competitive that I will easily get into a contest with someone to prove I am more competitive than they are. School, running, life in general, I will compete at basically anything. Heck, I was playing the Battlestar Galactica game (which, if you like the show, can be pretty good fun), and by the end I was SCREAMING at the people on my team to get me INTO SPACE ALREADY SO I COULD WHIP THOSE CYLONS (I played Starbuck. I think we have a lot in common. Does it show?).

It's times like that (they DID get me into space, and we DID beat the Cylons), that I sit down afterward, take a deep breath...and wonder if this kind of competitiveness is really good for me. Negative social interactions such as social rejection may lead to an increased inflammatory response to stress. This in turn could put someone at risk for all sorts of nasties, like depression, hypertension, diabetes, and even some cancers. Is my competitive nature, in the end, going to be the better of me?

Well, it turns out, perhaps not. Negative social interactions as a whole aren't a good idea, but a friendly competition? May just be friendly indeed.

Chiang et al. "Negative and competitive social interactions are related to heightened proinflammatory cytokine activity" PNAS, 2012.

(What would this be without some friendly competition?)

Inflammation seems to be becoming the new hot term of "things that cause all your problems". Diabetes? Inflammation! Obesity? Inflammation! Depression? Inflammation! We hear these terms bandied about all the time, but what does inflammation really MEAN?

When I personally think of inflammation, I think of a swollen ankle or something similar. But inflammation is far more than that. When scientists think of inflammation, what they are thinking of is a complex process that is normally meant to be good for you. The inflammation response is essential for fighting off infection. But the long term release of pro-inflammatory cytokines (molecules that control inflammatory processes in your tissues) may be less than helpful. Increases in pro-inflammatory cytokines (things like interleukin-6, [IL-6], or tumor necrosis factor alpha [TNF-alpha]) are linked with all the nasty diseases listed above.

And some of the changes in these cytokines are also linked with things like social interactions. We've known that strong social bonds are good for you, but until recently, we've never really known how. Now scientists think that changes in inflammatory cytokines in response to things like social stress or positive social support could be behind the benefits of good social ties, and the detriments of bad ones.

This paper aimed to study how people's normal social interactions influenced their cytokine levels, both normally and in response to stress. They had 122 people keep diaries all their social interactions for 8 days. They then took the diaries, swabbed the people's cheeks to look at cytokine levels, gave them a social stress test, and swabbed them again.

What they found was that people's normal cytokine levels are pretty intensely variable, but they also found some correlations between different kinds of social stress and cytokine levels. Negative social interactions (including things like rejection, fights, etc) correlated with levels of the cytokine TNF-alpha. But competition (not necessarily a negative social interaction) was correlated with increased levels of the cytokine IL-6. It was a small correlation, so the authors divided it out by the KIND of competition. Was it academic? Leisure (like sports)? Or personal (like over a lover)? When they divided it up, it turned out that leisure activity competitions (sports, Battlestar Galactica games) were not correlated with IL-6 levels, while the more negative kinds of competition, over people or work, had a significant correlation.

And that was all at baseline. After a test stress, the negative social interactions correlated with both IL-6 and TNF-alpha, while competition didn't have an effect.

What the authors didn't find, and what they expected to find, was a correlation between POSITIVE social interactions and lower cytokine levels. They figured that the more positive social interactions you had, the better for your cytokine levels, but found nothing to support it. Why could this be the case? The authors hypothesize that maybe some of the people who are having the positive social interactions are having them because they are stressed (being comforted by someone after a negative social interaction, for example), and that this might change the data.

Of course there are many caveats to this study. For example, the data were self-reported, and they authors could not control the social interactions themselves. Different people will also respond to social interactions in different ways, what might be minorly negative for one person could be majorly negative for another. In addition, the sample size was relatively small (122, which when you're going for subjectively reported effects like this, could be too small to get low variability). The variability of all of their measures was excrutiatingly high. While they took measures for 8 days, are the effects of social stress long or short lasting? Perhaps they should have taken diaries for a month, or maybe just the day before? Clearly we're going to need much larger studies, with a longer set of measures, to really determine both how social interactions effect cytokines, and how those cytokine measures in turn affect health.

So overall, it looks like the negative social interactions, and may the negative kinds of competition, may increase levels of cytokines in the short term. What does this mean in the long term for health? We don't know yet, and it would take a much longer study to find out. But this is an interesting example of just how much your daily social interactions can influence the state of your body. And it means that while my work competition may be no good, my competition in the realm of Battlerstar Galactica is A-OK.

Chiang, J., Eisenberger, N., Seeman, T., & Taylor, S. (2012). Negative and competitive social interactions are related to heightened proinflammatory cytokine activity Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109 (6), 1878-1882 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1120972109