I was struck by a piece of statistic Marc Zandi, a noted economist (and adviser to John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign) quoted in an interview yesterday: 5% of the U.S. population owns 20% of the national assets, and the top 20% owns 60% of the assets. This puts us in the lowest 1/3 in equality; statistically that means that we are an outlier (outside 1 standard deviation of the mean) among rich countries, which as a rule tend to be more egalitarian. Revolutions, military coups and electoral earthquakes were sparked by lesser degrees of inequality, so you might ask: where is the American outrage? Why didn’t the unemployed of the Great Depression rise up? Why do today’s unemployed react with more shame than anger, as if it is their fault? Some of the most pathetic stories you read about the unemployed is men dressing up and “going to work” every morning so as not to lose face with family, neighbors and friends. In Greece they react to the indignity of unemployment in a radically different fashion. So what gives?

It is in our brain

Susan Fiske of Princeton is a leading social psychologist who has been studying these kinds of questions with clinical detachment and scientific rigor. In a study she published in Psychological Science in 2006 she describes a fascinating experiment. Many studies had shown that when people think about other people their medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) lights up on MRI. But when she showed her students images of homeless people or of drug addicts- their mPFC did not light up. That fit perfectly into Fiske’s theory of interpersonal relations which she describes in her newly published book (reviewed in Science, July 15, 2011, by Jessica L. Tracy) Envy Up, Scorn Down: we are driven by two different emotions –envy and scorn. Fiske links these emotions to two classes of motives thought to underlie human social behavior, what she calls “competence” and “warmth” (in more formal psychological terminology these are called “agency” and “communion”). We form stereotypes based on a combination of feeling of warmth and competence. We envy people of high competence and low in warmth, and scorn people of low competence, pitying them if they are high in warmth and scorn them if they are low in competence. And this is why the students’ mPFC did not light up: they considered the homeless and the drug addicts “less typically human”.

From a natural selection point of view it makes a lot of sense that people compare each other. It is important for people to constantly assess where they stand in society. Even among apes failure to respect the pecking order can carry severe punishment. In early human groups of hunters-gatherers, assessing wrongly the danger of a rival in the group, or the power of a rival group, can spell disaster for the offender; which is a strong incentive not to misjudge where you stand, and where others do.

The Social Consequences

This construct of the underlying emotions of social behavior, envy and scorn, has garnered a wealth of supporting evidence. Among Americans, some of the stereotypically low-warmth and low-competence groups who elicit scorn are poor blacks and welfare recipients. Elderly and disabled are two high-warmth and low-competence groups that elicit pity. Asians and Jews are low-warmth and high competence groups, and they elicit envy. What about high-warmth and high-competence people? Not surprisingly, the middle-class views itself as high-warmth and high-competence, and thus are spared both envy and scorn.

Be honest with yourself: did you feel any empathy with the millions of Pakistanis suffering terribly by devastating floods? You are not alone. Hardly any outpouring of donations gushed forth from the U.S. I think it is because we hold them in contempt, low in competence and low in warmth.

What about the Japanese victims of the earthquake and tsunami? There was a palpable wave of warm solidarity and empathy toward the victims. This is probably because the Japanese rank high in competence, and the uncomplaining people of Fukushima elicited enormous warm sympathy.

Circling back to the original questions: why don’t we have a Greek style uprising? Fiske blames it on American belief that people get what they deserve, and equate poverty with incompetence. Which explains the bizarre phenomenon of self-blame and lack of self-worth among the unemployed and the lower classes. It can also explain the puzzling phenomenon of the white, middle-class angry movement of the tea party. They view the less fortunate as lazy, leeches off the public largesse, undeserving poor –hence the virulent contempt. Not surprisingly, they spare people like themselves of the feeling of envy or contempt.

Fiske point out that people belonging to privileged, envy-eliciting classes are keenly aware of the envy/contempt emotion and do their best to escape envy by trying to be seen as regular folks. That’s why George Bush senior went out of his way to eat pork rinds and shop for socks in a supermarket in front of the TV cameras. Or why W affected a Texas accent and wore cowboy boots on the campaign trail. Or why Ivy League- educated candidates for Congress campaign in beat up pickup trucks.

Prospect for the future

Our national self-image of rugged individualists, up-by-the bootstraps Horatio Algers, generates contempt for the lower classes. this will not be changed any time soon. Unfortunately, but understandably, people who stand to gain from this mindset do their best to perpetuate it. This is, as I see it, why enormous amounts of money are spent on re-directing “the people’s” resentments toward the less fortunate and away from the privileged. This is why any time one points out the appalling inequality in our society, we hear the condemnatory cry: “class warfare”. And this I think, explains why people vote against their economic interests.

I never thought that “brainwashing” would one day gain a neuroanatomical basis. But here we are.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.