Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What does prejudice reveal about what it means to be human?

By Jeremy Adam Smith

The questions raised by racism and xenophobia go straight to the heart of what it means to be human, for they involve dehumanization. Prejudice means we implicitly embrace a definition of humanity that includes some — usually those who most resemble us — and excludes others.

That's why Susan T. Fiske was invited to speak at Being Human 2013, a showcase (co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center) of scientific insights into the nature and direction of our species.

As the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, Fiske has become one of the leading investigators of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination, and she is the author or co-author of many books, including Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us and The Human Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies, just released this month.

Fiske has especially explored how snap judgments shape our social interactions. She has found that people we see as warm and competent elicit the most positive emotion and behavior from us. Unfortunately, however, her studies show that those perceptions are heavily influenced by factors like race, age, gender, disability, and more—and that this millisecond social-sifting translates into widespread stereotyping and discrimination.

As Fiske described at Being Human, all over the world it is the poor, homeless, and immigrants who bear the brunt of discrimination, eliciting feelings of outright — but often subconscious — disgust from study participants. I spoke with her backstage at that event about her research and hopes for a future without prejudice.

susan-fiske-human Jeremy Adam Smith: What does prejudice reveal about what it means to be human?

Susan T. Fiske: Well, for me it reveals two things. It reveals something good about human nature, which is that we care deeply about our in-groups. It’s only human to be comfortable with people who you think are like you; there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it gets us through a lot of stress—to be attached to our in-groups is our backup system.

But the downside is that you’re then excluding people who are not in the in-group. That’s the problem, especially in modern society, where it’s better to be able to deal with a variety of people and to deal with them respectfully.

JAS: What do you say to people who put the emphasis on the downside—who argue that hate and distrust for outsiders defines us as human beings?

STF: In our research, we talk about warmth and competence dimensions. And the warmth dimension is completely predicted by cooperative or competitive intent.

So, if you think the other group is competing with you, then of course you don’t trust them. A perfect example of this is the implications of framing: If you think about an immigrant group as taking away American jobs, of course people are going to hate them. But if you frame the immigrant group as taking jobs nobody else wants and growing the economy, then they’re cooperating and sharing our values and goals—and so people feel well-disposed toward them.

So viewing groups as having warm and trustworthy intent (or not) is really crucial, as your question implies—but it’s malleable. Perception of competence, for example, is completely predicted by perceived status. To me this is deeply unfair, because it says that high status people are smart and low status people are not, and therefore, according to this view, people are getting what they deserve.

JAS: It’s a kind of logical loop: You're poor because you're dumb because you're poor.

STF: Yes, and the correlation is really high between perceived status and perceived competence. One is a demographic variable: How prestigious is your job? The other one is an individual human variable: How competent are you? The idea that people think those are redundant—that one points to the other—is really strange and terrible, because people do not always get what they deserve. There are contexts that determine these outcomes, and also there’s chance. But people’s intuitive theories about status and competence don’t accommodate those facts. This is very unfair.

JAS: Are Americans more prejudiced than other humans, as some say?

Read the rest on the website of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center.