Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Divided by Status: Upward Envy and Downward Scorn1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Divided by Status: Upward Envy and Downward Scorn1

Article excerpt

AMERICANS STAND at a dramatically divisive point in our history, separated by inequalities not seen since the Gilded Age a century ago. Although received wisdom claims that we all are middle class, polls persistently show that we split equally between identifying as working class and as middle class. To paraphrase Tom Tehrer, the middle folks scorn the working folks and the working folks envy the middle folks; they both hate the rich folks and the poor folks; it's as American as apple pie. Not to be glib, we are divided by social class in ways that we rarely acknowledge. My social psychology laboratory has been examining the ways that envy up- ward and scorn downward undermine us. Much of the theoretical ground- work appears in my book Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us.2

Envy and scorn reflect comparison. Envy may be defined as "I wish I had what you do (and I would like to take it away from you)." Scorn may be defined as "You are not worth my attention (and I wish you would go away)." Envy famously eats at the envious, linked with resentful rumination. It's not too good for the envied, either, because they may be targets of vio- lence. Tikewise, scorn scars the scornful because it makes them clueless about the people they ignore, becoming socially inept in relationships. And being scorned, of course, is no one's preference. If envy and scorn are so toxic, how do they poison us?

This article will begin with background on the conceptual framework that informs our exploration, the Stereotype Content Model. Then I will sample three studies from our team's empirical examinations: one on status, and one each on scorn and envy. All is not bleak, however, because envy and scorn can change under the right circumstances.

The Contents of Our Stereotypes

The Stereotype Content Model3 describes our first reactions to strangers, either individuals (e.g., in a dark alley) or groups (e.g., a new wave of immi- grants). First, we need to know the other's intentions for good or ill, whether the other is friend or foe. If friend, then the other individual or group is warm, trustworthy, and friendly. (If foe, then not.) Second, we need to know whether the other can act on those intentions, that is, whether the other is competent, capable, and effective (or not). A competent foe is dangerous, but an incompetent foe can be safely ignored. A competent friend can help, whereas an incompetent friend needs help.

The Stereotype Content Model (SCM) turns out to be remarkably useful in describing both society's shared map of social groups and individuals' impressions of other people. In technical terms, the two dimensions-per- ceived warmth and competence-account for upward of 80 percent of the variance in cultural stereotypes and individual impressions.4 Examining each quadrant of the warmth x competence, two-dimensional map illustrates why.

In the low-low part of the space (see table 1 ) are those with allegedly no redeeming qualities, seen as neither warm nor competent. All over the world, poor people land in this part of the space, and in the U.S., homeless people and drug addicts do, too. People report feeling disgust and contempt toward them. In direct contrast, the groups viewed as high on both dimensions are us, ingroups, and societal reference groups for most Americans, such as the middle class and heterosexuals, and, in the U.S. especially, Christians. People report feeling proud of these groups. These kinds of us-them comparisons (e.g., middle-class people versus homeless people) have been the stuff of de- cades of research on intergroup relations.5

The off-diagonal quadrants represent our lab's unique contribution; they contain the ambivalently viewed outgroups. Groups viewed as high on warmth but low on competence, for example, include older people and those with disabilities, either physical or mental. All over the world, people agree that these people are nice but incompetent. People report feeling pity and sympathy toward them, but these emotions are intrinsically ambivalent and, though well-intentioned, look down on the person. …

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