Scorn, Very Misplaced

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You’re inspired. You have just seen Erin Brockovich, or The Pursuit of Happyness: Empathy propels an unemployed single mother into a tireless, and successful quest for justice…A poor man, armed with love of his son and self-respect, overcomes crushing hardships. There are countless stories of perseverance, courage and ultimate triumph by low-income men, women, boys and girls — and reading or seeing these stories fills most people with good feelings and a sense that the world is right when such people are able to make it. They also take away a higher sense of personal potential: If the underdog in the story can do that, I’m capable of better things too!

Why, then, does research show that the most likely thing that people feel toward poor people is scorn?

Yes, scorn. Google’s dictionary defines it as “the feeling or belief that someone or something is worthless or despicable”: And scorn is actually listed as the exact opposite of admiration. (While we are on the subject, let’s note that usage of the word scorn has dropped 66% over the last 100 years. It seems we scorn a lot less than before, but…we have saved some for low-income people.)

Incredibly Useful Research

The explanation is fascinating.  Three distinguished professors* have spent many years studying how we assess and react to people. Their articles and books explain that our minds very quickly (within one second!) assess others and put them in convenient categories. Then,  based on those categories, we tend to have pretty predictable feelings about the people, and those feelings prompt pretty predictable behaviors.

Stay with me.  Specifically, they found that we quickly assess people on two dimensions: Warmth and Competence. (The first seems to help us know who to trust, and the second establishes our relative status.)  Furthermore, we don’t just do that with people, we tend to evaluate whole groups that way too.  Specific groups of people like the handicapped, the elderly and working mothers are generally perceived as having high warmth attributes, while  business people, career women, and yes, the poor, are perceived as having low levels of warmth.

Here is how it looks when each group is positioned based on how Americans typically assess their warmth and competence:

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Although one may not agree with it, that kind of characterization sounds benign enough. The bigger problem comes in the next step. Here are the emotions that people most often feel toward the groups in each of the four Warmth/Competence quadrants and the most common behaviors that accompany those emotions:

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“Wise” Poor Mothers???

These findings explain so much about the state of low-income people in the US. They also explain why people look surprised when they see the name of this site: “Wise” and “poor” do not go together in many people’s minds.

This research makes it clear that there are two big obstacles to Americans caring enough about low-income mothers to give them even common courtesy, much less the modest help that would benefit the whole country so richly.

ant with leaf1. We need to make the warmth of low-income mothers visible.

2. We need to make their competence apparent to everyone.



The Good News

Many thanks to Professors Fiske, Cuddy and Glike for making the task clearer. The good news is that one of their studies showed that scorn can be transformed: “scornful responses exaggerate when the lower status person seems responsible [for their poverty], but the scorn can reverse when the person contradicts stereotypic expectations by working against misfortune [demonstrating effort].”

Poor people are working so hard against misfortune every day. We can make that visible.

I’d love to hear your suggestions on innovative ways to show people the warmth and competence of low income mothers!



Susan Fiske, is a professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton. Her excellent book is Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011)

Amy Cuddy has many written works on this subject. A very readable account for lay audiences is in an article by Craig Lambert, “The Psyche on Automatic”, Harvard Magazine November-December (2010): 48-52

Photo featured under the  William James quote is the work of Geo Christian (  Ant photo appeared unattributed on post by Ali Luke 8/2010.

Categories: All Posts, For Social Service Organizations, Relevant Research

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