e m p a t h y | s c h a d e n f r e u d e  

 

Some of the ongoing projects in the lab examine...

Empathy is generally recognized as a central component of the human condition; it facilitates social functioning by promoting pro-social behavior, even among strangers. Despite its early origins and adaptive functions, empathy is not a universal response. Failures of empathy are particularly likely for socially distant targets: for example, members of different social or cultural groups. In some cases, we may even experience pleasure in response to others’ misfortunes (Schadenfreude) or displeasure in response to others’ triumphs (Gluckschmerz). These counter-empathic responses may at best give rise to indifference to others’ suffering, and at worst facilitate further harm against them.


We explore the neural and psychological mechanisms that underlie intergroup empathy bias among a variety of social groups (e.g., rival sports teams, social groups categorized by race, ethnicity, occupation). We find, for example, that people smile when misfortunes befall stereotypically envied groups’ members. Among Red Sox and Yankees fans, we find that participants, who exhibit greater activation in brain regions associated with reward registration, also report increased likelihood of aggressing against rival team fans. Our lab also examines these processes in minimal groups contexts in order to isolate the factors that exacerbate and mitigate intergroup empathy bias.

c o m p e t i t i o n | h a r m  

Instrumentality refers to perceiving a target in terms of its usefulness. Like objects, people become instrumental when they are useful for an active goal. For example, sexual objectification is one widely cited instantiation of instrumentality. We study how sexual instrumentality, along with sexist attitudes, influences appraisals of, memory for, and neural responses to images of sexualized and clothed men and women.

In one study we found that Male (but not female) participants, who reported harboring hostile sexist attitudes, more quickly associated sexualized women with first-person action verbs (“handle”) and clothed women with third-person action verbs (“handles”) than the inverse, suggesting that the sexualized targets were more readily represented as the objects of action and the clothed targets as the agents of action. Furthermore, hostile sexism correlated negatively with activation of regions associated with mental state attribution—mPFC, posterior cingulate, temporal poles—but only when viewing sexualized women. Heterosexual men best recognized images of sexualized female bodies (but not faces), as compared with other targets’ bodies; however, neither face nor body recognition were related to hostile sexism, suggesting the fMRI findings are not explained by more or less attention to sexualized female targets. Diminished mental-state attribution is not unique to targets that people prefer to avoid, as in dehumanization of stigmatized people; these studies demonstrate that appetitive social targets may elicit a similar response depending on perceivers’ attitudes toward them.

o b j e c t i f i c a t i o n

Why do interactions become more hostile when relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them"? One possible mechanism is that acting with a group reduces the salience of one’s own personal moral standards.

We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone, and once with a group; (ii) the salience of participants’ own moral standards during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in a region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC); and (iii) effects on subsequent behavior were assessed using a novel index of participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that inter-group competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce the salience of individuals' own moral standards, and, as a consequence, enable harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.