28 July 2006

Untermenschen In The Cortex

An interesting new study out of Princeton "shows that the stereotyping of groups as being sub-human can happen on an unconscious, neurological level". Normally, activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex (MPFC) increases as a result of processing social information. In this study, participants were shown pictures of members of different social groups while being imaged.

When shown pictures of drug addicts and the homeless, little activity above baseline was noted. (I assume this is an exaggeration on the part of this popular article; I'd hazard a guess that some participants showed the same activity for the homeless as for Olympians.)

Social research has shown that people evaluate people unlike them according to two scales: how nice, or warm, they appear and how smart, or competent, they seem. Some social groups are commonly viewed as being low in competence and high in warmth (the elderly), while others are stereotyped as being high in competence but low in warmth (the wealthy). Social groups that are stereotyped as having neither warmth nor competence—like drug addicts—are often judged to be both hostile and stupid.
This is an interesting avenue of study, but needs to be expanded beyond these initial parameters. Would individuals exhibiting psychopathy respond to images of any social group? What about showing pictures of one's enemies or opponents? I, for one, find it hard to believe I'd think anything but "Morlock" if presented with this image.