An Interview with Susan T. Fiske

Author of the new RSF book Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us

Susan FiskeSusan T. Fiske, a noted social psychology professor at Princeton University, is the author of Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us, published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2011. A former Visiting Scholar, Fiske currently studies prejudices and stereotypes at the personal, cultural and neural levels. Her latest book, co-funded by the Guggenheim Foundation, examines the psychological underpinnings of why we compare ourselves to those both above and below us and what this aspect of human experience means for society. For more information on this subject, a reading list compiled by Professor Fiske is available here.  

Q: Your book seems to fit uneasily in the contemporary inequality debate. On the one hand, you suggest divisive comparisons are inevitable. On the other, you present evidence that both envy and scorn can be harmful. Where do you stand? 

Fiske: We have to address inequality at a national level, but also at a personal level. As a society, we need to know that we are among the bottom third for inequality. Reducing inequality benefits the society as a whole, making people healthier and happier. But just as bad as extreme inequality is uncertainty about where one stands. In society, this comes from volatile economic conditions. People compare more when status is unstable and uncertain.

Q: Do we all have this impulse to compare? Is it more prevalent among certain groups?

Fiske: As individuals, we compare because of status ambiguity; it's only natural that we want to know where we stand, and comparison to our immediate neighbors in the status hierarchy provides the best information. Men compare more than women do, except on appearance, where women match men. People feeling uncertain and out-of-control compare more than more settled people do.

Q: You say comparison can be useful -- it's informative, it reduces uncertainty, it's protective. But at what point does it become harmful?

Fiske: Comparison becomes dangerous when we forget that we are all in this together. In the lab, we have observed that Schadenfreude (malicious glee) correlates with harming the envied others. But we can control this. If you compare upward to some prizewinner in your field, you can interpret that as a disparity and feel bad, or you can interpret it as "good for our tribe."

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Q: What are some common stereotypes of groups that are envied or scorned?

Fiske: Envied groups include high-status people of any kind: rich people and outside entrepreneurs, all over the world. We admit they are competent, but we view them as not on our side, so they seem cold, exploitative, and untrustworthy. In the U.S. at present, Asian and Jewish people are often seen this way, as are female professionals.

We haven't talked about the scorned groups so much because it doesn't bother people so much when they scorn someone lower. Scorn is simply not paying attention and wishing the other away. Groups are scorned especially if they are low-status and not-us, such as homeless people and drug addicts. Poor people (regardless of ethnicity) and Latino immigrants are also seen this way. Scorn dehumanizes them and makes us neglect them.

Table 1.7, taken from p. 23 of Envy Up, Scorn Down, shows the placement of different groups on a Behaviors and Intergroup Affects and Stereotypes (BIAS) Map:

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.

Figure 2.9, taken from p. 42 of Envy Up, Scorn Down, shows a baseball fan's neurological reaction to a game's results:

Q: You end your book with a series of suggestions to help people channel their envy and scorn. How much of these emotions can humans adapt, given that the impulses that drive them seem biologically determined?

Fiske: I would not say envy and scorn are biological imperatives just because they are sometimes adaptive, perhaps evolved responses. Culture shapes our concepts of hierarchies, and where does culture get stored? In the brain, of course. But I am optimistic that people can harness envy for good, by adopting the Dutch word for benign envy, benijden, which means being motivated by someone's inspiring example. And I am optimistic that we can harness both envy and scorn by remembering that these people can be on our team; they are us, under different circumstances. There but for (mis)fortune, go I.

Reading List

Cikara, Mina, and Susan T. Fiske. 2011. "Stereotypes and Schadenfreude: Behavioral and Physiological Markers of Pleasure at Other's Misfortunes." Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Exline, Julie J., and Marci Lobel. 1999. "The Perils of Outperformance: Sensitivity About Being the Target of a Threatening Upward Comparison." Psychological Bulletin 125 (3): 307-37

Harris, Lasana T., and Susan T. Fiske. 2006. "Dehumanizing the Lowest of the Low: Neuro-imaging Responses to Extreme Outgroups." (PDF) Psychological Science 17 (10): 847-53.

Lareau, Annette, and Dalton Conley. 2008. Social Class: How Does It Work? New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications.

Smith, Richard H. 2008. Envy: Theory and Research. New York: Oxford University Press.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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