Sunday, June 5, 2011

Are the Most Powerful the Least Affected by Stories of Personal Hardship?

The following idea for an experiment I submitted to the National Science Foundation. Needless to say after the review I was not given a go-ahead. I should point out that Pablo Brinol and his colleagues later published a similar article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The background for the idea was from a New York Times article I read on differences between the United States and Europe. I wondered why compared to the American government the European governments with less economic power seemed to give away more aid to other countries in need.

On a personal level, could it be that powerful people are less affected by stories of personal hardship and stereotyping? I decided to conduct an experiment where some individuals in the lab would be in more powerful positions than others, then everyone would read a story about a member of a minority group, and finally I would measure their attitudes after having read the story. Perhaps the most important question is if the story about the disadvantaged person were told in a compelling way would that increase a powerful person's empathy toward that person, compared to a story that is not as well written?

The full NSF proposal is here:

Title:  Powerholders’ Stereotyping of and Empathy for Narrative Characters
key words: social psychology, psychology of narrative, stereotyping, intergroup relations

Learning about others through stories is a universal human activity. How readers respond to characters in narratives, and how they attribute traits to those characters, likely results from a variety of factors. One of these factors is whether the reader holds a powerful position in society. Research suggests that power does indeed decrease attention to the less powerful (Fiske, 1993). Compared to individuals who are less powerful, readers who are more powerful in society might display less empathy and engage in more stereotyping. However, becoming immersed in a story with less powerful characters could moderate powerholders’ decreased empathy and increased stereotyping of less powerful individuals.
The psychological theory of “Transportation into the Narrative World” suggests that becoming immersed in a narrative can have powerful emotional and persuasive consequences. The theory centers on the experience of readers being transported into a text; in this state, reader’s imaginative resources have them feeling removed from their surroundings and completely engaged in the world created by the author (Green & Brock, 2000). After being immersed in a text, readers often change their story-relevant attitudes in response to stories.  For example, after reading a story about a gay man attending his fraternity reunion, transported readers were more sympathetic to the main character, and changed their beliefs about homophobia in fraternities (Green, 2004).
Intellectual Merit: I propose the novel hypothesis that after reading a narrative about a lower-status character, individuals in more powerful positions will display more empathy and engage in less stereotyping towards that narrative character than they otherwise would.
One reason present-day powerholders might engage in stereotyping could be the type of information to which they pay attention. In a study of ostensible internship applicants, and those who had the power to hire them or not, the powerholders stereotyped by both design and by default (Goodwin, Gubin, Fiske, & Yzerbyt, 2000). Powerholders engaged in stereotyping by default through inattention to stereotype-inconsistent information, and they engaged by design through effortful attention to stereotypic-consistent information (Goodwin et al., 2000). 
Transporting stories can help overcome the effects of power, as transportation might allow and encourage the powerful individual to pay more attention to lower-status others than they otherwise would. Empathy might result from the perspective-taking found in stories; when people are in positions of greater power they might have no motivation to take another person’s perspective, and thus display less empathy with a character due to inattentiveness or self-focus. However, a transporting narrative with a low-status character might evoke empathy for the character, and reduce stereotyping on attitude items related to stereotypical traits.
Broader Impact: Because individuals often encounter stories about lower-status members, this proposal could further illuminate processes regarding empathy and stereotyping, and provide a powerful tool for reducing the negative effects of stereotypes in society. Stories have already been shown to affect attitudes towards helping disadvantaged groups. Narratives described as more justifying of the economic ideals of the American system, so-called “rags-to-riches” stories, led to individuals’ showing less support for social and economic redistributive policies, compared to individuals who read stories less supportive of the inequalities of the current economic system (Wakslak, Jost, Tyler, & Chen, 2007); the current research extends this work to address the specific role of power.
Methodology: The proposed study will inform groups of three participants that they will participate in two short studies. In a variation of a procedure used by Goodwin et al., (2000), participants will be seated at computer terminals to enter information about themselves. The results of the computer input would allegedly inform the experimenter who should be the leader for a group of tasks, and the experimenter will inform all three participants that there will be one leader who will assign tasks to the other two participants. After the tasks, for the ostensible second experiment, participants will read a short story with a homosexual protagonist previously used by Green (2004). Participants will be randomly assigned to high versus low transportation conditions, using established instruction set manipulations (Green & Brock, 2000). A control condition will not read the story. All participants will be asked their opinions about homosexuals.
Anticipated Results: I expect that individuals in positions of power would show evidence of stereotyping of narrative characters (more negative evaluation of the protagonist; less positive views towards homosexuals in fraternities) in the low transportation conditions, but not in the high transportation conditions. I predict that the low transportation condition will be equal to the control condition on measures like stereotyping of homosexuals. Transportation into a narrative world should overcome the effects of power by encouraging attention to lower-status others. One research question for the proposed study is how power directly affects the relationship a powerholder and the less powerful have towards characters in a story. While previous studies suggest that powerholders stereotype those they have control over, it remains unanswered if powerholders would stereotype characters in a story over which they have no direct control. 
Broader Impact: People encounter news stories every day about disadvantaged group members, and how powerful members of society react to the characters in these stories is of great importance. In addition, some medical problems fall disproportionately upon minority members of society, and insight from the proposed research study could suggest ideas about support for proposals to reduce health disparities. Also, powerful members of society could base their decisions to assist victims of disasters, nationally or internationally, on the stereotypes and the degree of empathy they hold when reading stories about the victims. In conclusion, the present research proposal could expand our knowledge of the extent to which narratives affect empathy and stereotyping, and would leave open wider avenues for narrative research yet to be explored.


Fiske, S. T. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping. American Psychologist, 48, 621-628.
Goodwin, S. A., Gubin, A., Fiske, S. T., & Yzerbyt, V. Y. (2000). Power can bias impression processes: Stereotyping subordinates by default and design. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 3, 227-256.
Green, M. C. (2004). Transportation into narrative worlds: The role of prior knowledge and perceived realism. Discourse Processes, 38, 247-268.
Green, M. C., & Brock, T. C. (2000). The role of transportation in the persuasiveness of public narratives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 701-721.
Wakslak, C. J., Jost, J. T., Tyler, T. R., Chen, E. S. (2007). Moral outrage mediates the dampening effect of system justification on support for redistributive social policies. Psychological Science, 18, 267-274.