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How Status Divides Us

Envy Up, Scorn Down
Being Human

we are the 99%Is inequality inevitable? Yes. Should we still fight it? Also yes.

In her 2011 book, Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us, Susan Fiske shares these conclusions—the result of her years of research into human behavior. According to Fiske, all human beings will inevitably compare themselves to one another, with the resulting envy and scorn leading to serious interpersonal conflicts. She attributes this need to compare to the feeling of status ambiguity. When we don't know where we stand in the social hierarchy, we look to others, making comparisons in order to figure out our own status. Fiske notes that people who feel their status is uncertain or unstable compare more than more settled people do. This kind of comparison is quite useful, as it can reduce our feelings of angst and uncertainty.

Fiske plots how we see others on a graph, with perceived warmth on one axis and perceived competence on the other. We envy those with high competence but low warmth, and we scorn those with low competence, particularly if they are also seen as cold. Envied high-status people can be everyone from the wealthy to certain ethnic groups perceived as competent but cold. In turn, we scorn low-status people: the homeless, drug addicts, and Latino immigrants, for example, and will even scorn people we view as warm but incompetent, like the elderly.

From an interview about the book:

Q: Can you talk generally about how you measure the dynamics of these emotions? Do they show up in brain scans? How are they revealed in your experiments?

Fiske: Our studies range from cultural comparisons across a couple dozen countries, to surveys of adults, to lab experiments with undergraduates, including neuro-imaging studies. One of our most depressing studies shows dehumanizing scorn: when people see pictures of homeless people and addicts, the part of the brain that normally activates to pictures of people (even outgroups) simply fails to come online. And people say they are not warm and familiar, not competent and autonomous, and that they would never interact with them. That's the bad news. The good news is that this brain region comes back online with what I consider the soup-kitchen manipulation: when you ask people to imagine what vegetables the homeless guy might eat.

My favorite envy study shows that when people watch investment bankers encounter everyday bad events (sitting in gum, getting splashed by a taxi), they smile. And in our other studies, such Schadenfreude activates reward areas of the brain, which as I mentioned, predicts harming the outgroup. Red Sox fans do this to Yankees fans when the other team loses (and vice versa). But we can short-circuit envy, too, by getting people to empathize.

Even though our impulses toward envy and scorn might be the inevitable result of our evolutionary heritage, Fiske is certain that we're not doomed to eternal inequality. She notes that, once we accept people as part of our group, the senses of envy and scorn are exchanged for more pleasant emotions. Instead of envying the successful and scorning the downtrodden, empathy leads us to see their successes and their misfortunes as our own.

Read the full interview here.

photo by ilias bartolini


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