Although feeling empathy is often an automatic response, people are less empathic towards those they categorize as out-group members. In competitive intergroup contexts, people may even feel pleasure (i.e. counter-empathy) in response to out-group members’ misfortunes. Social dominance orientation (SDO) or the extent to which people prefer group-based hierarchies, is an ideological variable that is associated with a competitive world view, increased prejudicial attitudes, and decreased empathy. Thus, higher levels of SDO should be associated with reduced empathy and increased counter-empathy in general, but especially towards those whose subjugation maintains group inequalities.
Previous work of ours shows that SDO is systematically related to empathy and counter-empathy (Hudson, Cikara, & Sidanius, 2019) and that social dominants actually want to feel less empathy and more counter-empathy towards others. An outstanding question is whether SDO’s relationship with empathy and counter-empathy impacts downstream hierarchy-enhancing behaviors. We propose that engaging in these behaviors is facilitated by feeling (reduced) empathy and (increased) counter-empathy towards low status targets. Furthermore, people's beliefs about hierarchy, or SDO, also predicts engaging in these behaviors, which can be one of two types: actively supporting hierarchy (and thus actively harming low status groups_ or passively supporting hierarchy.
Putting a model forward, we predict that empathy is the stronger mediator (compared to counter-empathy) for the relationship between SDO and passively harming low status groups while counter-empathy is the stronger mediator (compared to empathy) for the relationship between SDO and actively harming low status groups. Thus, we are interested in examining links between SDO and prejudicial attitudes and behaviors and ask whether specific (counter-)empathic emotions towards stigmatized groups mediate the relationship.
The research outlined here is our next attempt at manipulating levels of empathy. In a previous study, we tried to manipulate feelings of empathy by having people read (true) facts about poor people and generate reasons why a poor person might be poor because of reasons beyond or within their control. Previous research suggests that by reflecting on reasons a person would be poor for reasons that aren't their fault, individuals are more likely to feel empathy towards them. This manipulation failed.
Due to the COVID-19 crisis, continuing to use poor individuals as a target is unwise given widespread layoffs and financial difficulties. In this study, we are changing our target to be immigrants. In our first study, we found direct support for our hypotheses specificially in the case of undocumented immigrants, meaning SDO’s relationship with harmful policy support for undocumented immigrants was only mediated by feelings of schadenfreude while SDO’s relationship with helpful policy support for undocumented immigrants was mediated by both (lack of) feelings of empathy and schadenfreude but empathy was a significantly stronger mediator.