The Neurology of Contempt

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

By Wray Herbert

A friend tells a story from years ago about driving her 7-year-old son to his elementary school, a trip that took them through a very seedy part of their Pennsylvania hometown. They were never threatened on these rides, probably because the drug addicts and homeless men on the streets were far too depleted to do any real harm. Yet the boy disliked these people, intensely. He told his mother he wasn’t afraid of them, and no, he didn’t feel sorry for them. He hated them.

Where did this young child’s disdain come from? Certainly all the formal messages he was receiving—from his parents, his religion, from society—were telling him to show compassion for such unfortunates. Why was he railing against life’s victims rather than weeping for them?

Scientists are interested in such extreme and perplexing forms of prejudice, and have tried to figure out the cognitive processes underlying emotions like pity and contempt. In two recent studies, both published in the October issue of the journal Psychological Science, they throw some light on both the neurology of repugnance and the early emergence of our attitudes about the privileged and the down-and-out.

Most people think of prejudice as simple animosity. But psychologists are coming to see this common human trait as far more complex than that. Indeed, it appears from a growing body of research that our emotional reactions to “others” are quite nuanced. We may pity people who are powerless but benign—the elderly, for example—yet we don’t despise them. And we may respect but dislike people who are powerful but not particularly warm--the very rich, for instance. It appears that we save our most extreme emotional assessment—pure contempt—for the doubly cursed: those who we perceive as not only cold but incompetent. At the extreme, we view these extreme rejects—addicts, bums, modern-day lepers—as barely human.

Two Princeton psychologists decided to explore what is going on in the brain when we experience these various mixes of emotions, including undiluted disgust toward life’s losers. Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske showed people photographs of middle-class people like themselves, photos of different kinds of “outsiders” like the elderly, the rich and the destitute, and finally photos of inanimate objects, and they simultaneously scanned their brains. They were particularly interested in a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex, which is known to light up when we think about people and social interactions.

The results were fascinating and depressing. When participants looked at people much like themselves, they felt pride, a mix of admiration and warmth; the social brain predictably fired up. It also fired up when they viewed others with mixed emotions like envy and pity. But when they showed the subjects the most contemptible outsiders, the social brain went completely cold. They might as well have been looking at a photograph of a chair. In other words, they had in their minds completely dehumanized people who were marginalized by life’s lottery.

This sobering finding is consistent with the results of another study, this one with young children. Harvard University psychologist Kristina Olson and her colleagues told 5- to 7-year-old kids stories about fictional children and asked how much they liked them. Some of the fictional kids were lucky (they found $5) while others were unlucky (their soccer game was rained out); other kids were depicted as either good (they volunteered to help out) or bad (they lied to a parent). Not surprisingly, the participants liked the do-gooders more than the liars, but they also liked the lucky kids a lot more than the unlucky kids. What’s more, they didn’t favor the good kids all that much more than the fortunate kids. In other words, they were confusing misfortune with malevolence, and a lucky roll of the dice with actually being good.

The results of a second study were even more unwelcome. This time Olson had the kids view groups of kids on a computer screen; the two groups stood together and wore different color T-shirts, but were otherwise the same. The scientists again told stories, depicting one group as mostly lucky and the other as mostly unlucky. Then they introduced additional members to the two groups, and asked the kids in the study what they thought of the newcomers. Even though they knew nothing about the newcomers except the color of their T-shirts, they strongly preferred the ones who had “lucked into” the fortunate group. The life equivalent of this bias would be cozying up to those born into a privileged life--rather than, say, to those born into a life on the meaner streets of a Pennsylvania town. We can probably guess which group made the kids’ social neurons light up the brightest.

For more insights into human nature, visit the Association for Psychological Science website at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 4:51 PM


At 7:59 AM , Blogger Cassandra_Moderna said...

I live in Brazil, where the politicians who are known to have stolen the most public money are routinely reelected with many more votes than other elected officials. I have always been quite amazed by this, but now it makes more sense. Also, in the last 20 years, no Brazilian politician has had to serve time in spite of having tons of concrete evidence of guilt. Of course, this makes them very powerful and they rule with impunity. Great article! Thanks!

At 8:01 AM , Blogger Cassandra_Moderna said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that these politicians do a lot of election rigging and vote buying, but even if you factor that in, they still receive many more votes than would be explained by this.