Princeton University social psychologist Susan Fiske, PhD has mapped how our automatic judgements of people are reflected in our emotions. She calls it the “stereotype content model.” It suggests that we pity those whom we feel warmly about but who aren’t powerful (such as people with disabilities); we take pride in those with whom we share similar life circumstances and those who are competent (our in-group); those whom we are neither warm toward or confident their power (such as the poor and homeless) we feel scorn; and the ultra-powerful who aren’t our friends, we feel envy. Although feelings of scorn and envy are automatic and inevitable to some degree, according to Fiske, they corrupt our ability to be compassionate.
Fiske and colleagues performed a test to find out how people would solve a particular problem and how social status affects their decision. Participants were presented the “trolley problem,” where participants are asked 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. Although most would choose to sacrifice the lone trail worker, Fiske threw in social status into the mix and looked at the fMRI images of those making the decision. She found out that most are willing to sacrifice a member of their own in-group. However, the fMRI images show that areas of the brain associated with negotiating complex tradeoffs lighted up, which meant that people had a hard time making the decision.
In a follow-up study, people where hooked to a fMRI machine while they looked at images of poor and homeless people. They had lower activation in section of the brain for negotiating tradeoffs, compared to others with the same economic status. Fiske suggests that this hesitation to value the lives of those we scorn, comes from not fully recognizing them as fellow human beings.
Fiske was able to boost people’s empathy by asking them to step into that scorned person’s mind. Unfortunately, empathy seems to only move people up from the “disgust” category to the “pity” category – one that does not help participants see the homeless or poor as any more competent.
Source: Price, M. (2010 October). Monitor on Pyschology.