Susan Fiske: “The Nature of Prejudice”
On June 2, 2011, at the future site of Moynihan Station in New York City, Susan Fiske was inducted as the Gordon W. Allport Fellow of the American Academy. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn remarked, when introducing Professor Fiske, that [Susan’s] pioneering research on prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination has changed the way that we think about inequity and bias. Susan is a true successor to Gordon Allport and she has become a hero, or a heroine, to those who work to alter the dynamics of power in our society.” Below is a transcript of Susan Fiske’s acceptance remarks.
Thank you Brook and thank you, Doug, and thank you to the members of the Board of the Academy. I am really, really honored by this and I think that my mentors in the social relations program would be happy to see this kind of interdisciplinary recognition. I am particularly also happy to be the Gordon Allport Fellow, because as I was thinking about it in preparation for this, Gordon Allport’s 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice, it is the only book I have in every office. I have it at home, I have it in my Princeton office, I have it in our remote offices in Vermont, and the copy I have from graduate school is so dog-eared that the pages are falling out of the book. I have taught from it and its wisdom and wit and humanity and just really incredibly deep thinking about prejudice and the nature of prejudice is not to be replaced. There is really nothing else like it. I never actually met Gordon Allport, I arrived after he died, but I really have been inspired by him during my whole career.
I think Gordon Allport would understand some events in today’s paper. The E. coli outbreak in Germany was initially blamed on Spanish tomatoes – it is those Spanish tomatoes, you know, they come in and they contaminate us. And the forest fires in Arizona hundreds of miles from the border, who must have set them? Oh, those illegal immigrants, you know, they must have done it, in revenge because they are being chased by the border patrol. You know, we have a tendency, just watch the next time we have some new mysterious disease, who does it get blamed on? It is always some other group, right? It is always some people from beyond our borders, usually ones that we feel really uncomfortable about and who seem different from us and therefore they are contaminated and their contamination is coming to us. So this is really what I study. I study how the national and international and societal divides between us manifest themselves in people’s sort of everyday theories about how the world works and the kinds of leaps that people make, from forest fires and E. coli to those contaminated, disgusting people that, you know, are not like us. Oh, maybe they were domestic tomatoes.
So, one of the things that we have been finding in my team of researchers is that there are at least two kinds of out-groups particularly relevant to this example. One is the scorned type of out-group who are seen as having no redeeming good features. In the United States, homeless people are an out-group that is three standard deviations out from all the other groups, on not being worthwhile human beings, on not being competent, not being nice, not being trustworthy. And what we find – I have just recently in the last ten years gotten into neuroimaging work – we find this really strange result. Normally, when people look at a picture of another person or just think about the other person to make sense of the person, this part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex comes online. It is lovely for social scientists because there is part of the brain that just really likes to come online when people think about people, you know? It is just so cool. But the problem is, it does not come online for homeless people and drug addicts. So this is a brain manifestation of what happens when you seen a panhandler on a sidewalk, what do you do? What do I do? You make a detour around the person, you avoid eye contact, you certainly do not want to touch them because you would be contaminated, right? People react to some people as if they are piles of garbage. And that is pretty bad. It is true of immigrants, too, unspecified immigrants which means, you know, of course, those undocumented Latino people. They are seen in the same cluster of out-groups as well. Poor people – and this is not just an American disease, we have comparative data from twenty or thirty countries and poor people all over the world and immigrants all over the world are seen in this kind of scorned, disgusting, contaminating way. And I think in the worst case, dehumanizing people in this way enables us to torture them, it enables us to not worry about whether they die in the streets. So, you know, this is a really horrible kind of prejudice and it relates to public policy.
So as not to totally depress you, I can tell you that you can undo it and it is not that hard. If you say, “Oh, the leftovers I had from lunch, instead of boxing it up and taking it back to the office maybe I will give it to this homeless person. Do you think he would like to eat carrots? Would he like broccoli?” Simple decision about somebody’s food preferences brings back the medial prefrontal cortex, it brings back the concept that this is a human being who might like carrots or might not like carrots. It does not have to be a deep analysis but it makes the person a person again. So this viewing of some out-groups as basically vermin is a sort of default response but it can be undone, depending on the way that you relate to them.
There is another kind of out-group that we focused on in our most recent work, so if this is scorn downward the other one is envy upward, up the social hierarchy. Envied out groups are super humanized, cold and competent, automatons with high status. They are able to do anything without feeling anything, you know, but they are threatening because they have gotten somewhere and historical examples of this are sort of outsider entrepreneurial groups and minority and female professionals. Groups that are kind of succeeding despite being outsiders. They are really massively threatening to societies and to individuals, and envy is not a nice emotion, it is not a nice emotion at all. Envy says, “You have something I wish I had and if I could I would like to take it away from you.” There is a reason that three-quarters of the cultures in world have evil eye beliefs. Envy is not trivial because, you know, you might think, “Well, these privileged people, who cares if they get discriminated against,” but envy is not trivial because if you look at a lot of genocides, they are directed towards these outsider entrepreneurs. Group violence under breakdown are directed toward these people who do not belong, they are not one of us, but they have built something, they have something, and we would kind of like to destroy them under social breakdown. Schadenfreude, you know, glee at their misfortunes. We have studied that in the neuroimaging lab, too, and actually in the psychophysiologic lab we hooked up electrodes to people’s smile muscles and we found that when bad events happen to people, people go “aww” to most people but to envied out-groups people smile. Investment bankers – their Armani suit gets drenched by a taxi, people smile at that. The guy who owns the yacht – you just give him a little push and he falls in the water – he does not get killed or anything, he just gets really wet, you know, or sits in gum on a park bench. People kind of like that.
So, you know, I spend a lot of time looking at the less attractive sides of human nature but I often like to say that, you know, because I study prejudice I am never going to be out of work. It is human nature to be more comfortable with people who are like you or who you think are like you. It is not surprising. But that does not mean we cannot try to do something about it and try to do something about both up the hierarchy and down the hierarchy because status truly does divide us from each other and the more conscious we are of that, the more we can impact it. Thank you.
Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are solely the opinions of the individuals and not those of the Academy.