Feature

When we meet someone for the first time, we automatically make two judgments: whether they’re a friend and whether they have power. Princeton University social psychologist Susan Fiske, PhD, calls the first variable warmth and the second one competence.

Plot those concepts on a 2-by-2 square and you get the recipe for scorn and envy, said Fiske, who received this year’s APA Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award at the Annual Convention.

Envy, which results from seeing powerful people in a higher social sphere than yours, is dangerous in that it turns people resentful, sometimes even violently so, said Fiske. Scorn results from seeing someone who is powerless and below you socially, and it’s just as dangerous as it implies the scorned person is not even worth your attention. Even though both feelings are automatic and inevitable to some degree, Fiske said, they corrupt our ability to be compassionate.

The chart below shows how our automatic judgments of people are reflected in our emotions. We pity those whom we feel warmly about but who aren’t powerful, such as elderly people or those with disabilities, Fiske said. We take pride in those with whom we share similar life circumstances and those who are competent — what we call our in-group. To those whom we are neither warm toward nor confident in their power, such as the homeless and poor, we feel disgust. And to the ultra-powerful who aren’t our friends, we feel envy. Taken together, these concepts form the “stereotype content model,” which underlies much of Fiske’s work.

Americans should better understand this model since they often ignore or disregard harmful stereotypes, Fiske said. “We pretend that everyone is equal, so we don’t acknowledge the serious problems all around us.”

One of these problems, Fiske said, is that we seem to value people based on their social status. To test whether that holds true in an experimental setting, Fiske and colleagues turned to the “trolley problem,” the philosophical dilemma that asks people whether they would switch a runaway trolley onto a different track, killing a single rail worker in order to save the lives of five rail workers in the trolley’s current path.

It turns out that most people would sacrifice that lone rail worker to save five others. But Fiske wanted to know what would happen if she threw social status into the mix. “We thought, let’s put different kinds of people on the tracks,” she said. In her experiment, published in February online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, she found that most people were willing to sacrifice a member of their own in-group to save five homeless or poor people. But when researchers looked at fMRI images taken while people made their decisions, Fiske found higher-than-baseline activation in the medial prefrontal cortex and the occipital frontal cortex — regions associated with negotiating complex tradeoffs — indicating that people had a hard time making that decision.

In a follow-up study, she found that when participants in an fMRI machine looked at images of identifiably poor, homeless people, they had lower activation in their medial prefrontal cortex than when they looked at people with their same economic status.

Fiske suspects that this hesitation to value the lives of those we scorn comes from not fully recognizing members of scorned groups as fellow human beings.

But what if you could somehow reinforce those people’s humanity? In preliminary studies, Fiske has been able to boost participants’ empathy by priming them to relate to historically scorned people in pictures. For example, asking participants to consider whether the person in the picture would like a certain type of vegetable — and therefore asking them to step into the pictured person’s mind — erases the disparity in medial prefrontal cortex activation in fMRI readings.

Unfortunately, said Fiske, empathy seems only to move people up from the “disgust” category to the “pity” category. It doesn’t help participants to see homeless or poor people as any more competent.

Still, it helps move people away from scorn, which is a good thing, she said.