Thursday, August 17, 2006

The poor who?

A couple of weeks ago, I had a post that essentially said that America doesn't devalue the lives of Muslims, per se, but rather devalues poor people of all religions, nationalities, creeds, and colors. A rainbow of indifference, if you will.

Now, there's scientific proof.

Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychologist has been studying the psychological mechanics of stereotyping, and she presented some of her findings at a special panel at the ASA conference this week. She posits that all people are initially evaluated first on a scale of "warmth" (basically how good someone is), and then on a scale of "competence" (how able they are). She constructed a two-dimensional space using these measures and demonstrated where certain identities (e.g., "Jew", "homeless person", "executive") fell, according to empirically determined popular belief.

You'll recognize that certain identities are resident in the High-warmth, High competence area: athletes, astronauts, actors, etc. Others are to be found in the High-warmth, Low competence area: old, the disabled, children. In the Low-warmth-Low competence area are typically homeless, criminals, and the poor (given that we universally attribute wealth to competence). The Low-warmth, High-competence area includes corporate leaders and 'preppies'.

So, it turns out that when we think about people, in general, we think of them differently than objects. We mentally empathize - we intuit what they're thinking and we try to respond to that -- this is the essence of social interaction. And when we do, a fairly particular spot in our brains is noted to be active. Now, I'm not a neurologist, and I didn't note the name of this part, but it's pretty small, dead center, and toward the front of the brain. It fires when a person falls off a chair, but not when a book does. It's an indicator that people are psychologically important and unique to us, which shouldn't be surprising.

What is surprising is that when we're viewing images of people from the Low-warmth, Low-competence quadrant of Fiske's graph, it doesn't fire.

How about that.

In other words, people who we don't feel any warmth toward and who are not considered someone of consequence, we dismiss as people. We, in a sense, withdraw that special privilege of humanness from them, treating them the same way we do books, chairs, and bobo dolls.

And, as social psychologists have long said, we all pretty much agree on where certain people types fall on these scales. In fact, there's fairly little variance across world cultures: we all see the poor, unwashed masses, the mentally ill, and the incarcerated in this way. And that in a sense explains our actions (or inactions) toward them. We don't empathize - we don't try to feel their pain, we don't wonder what they're thinking, and we don't worry about them.

The truth is that this isn't a specifically American thing. Everybody does it across the world, and largely to the same populations. Even those who inhabit that "low-life" quadrant probably share these social definitions. Perhaps this means they withdraw empathy from their compatriots and even from themselves. They come to live in a world of objects, without humanity.

I want to stress that science's ability to place a particular thought or emotion in a particular spot in the brain does not make that thought or emotion any less socially based. There is no biological or evolutionary necessity to dehumanize. It is a socio-cultural convention, one that we permit when it is convenient.

As Americans, perhaps, though, we have a special responsibility to recognize this. Since we have such power to affect the lives of people all around the world, it is our incumbent responsibility to work against the tendency to treat the rest of the world as objects. Not only morally, but practically, because those who are treated as inhuman are liable to act that way. Could this possibly underlie any of the discontent in the (poor) Muslim world?

I don't know if there is a practical personal limit on empathy, but I'm pretty sure we haven't reached it.


At 5:03 PM, Blogger Jeff said...

Jim Jasper, also speaking at the ASAs, offered his own 2 x 2 table of characters used in narratives. Although not drawing on empirical data, his ideas resonate with Fiske's work. Characters (e.g., heroes, clowns, criminals, victims) differ along two axes, weak/strong and bad/good (Affect Ctrl. Theory anyone?).

Jasper wants to emphasize the emotional content of these characters and uncover how they are used by social movement groups (among others) to tell stories and inspire (political) action.

After Jasper and Fiske, we now need to talk about what effects these typologies have on action. How does that blinking light in the front of our brain actually effect behavior?


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