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Preference for hierarchy is associated with reduced empathy and increased counter-empathy towards others, especially out-group targets


The capacity to empathize with others facilitates prosocial behavior. People's willingness and capacity to empathize, however, is often contingent upon the target's group membership – people are less empathic towards those they categorize as out-group members. In competitive or threatening intergroup contexts, people may even feel pleasure (counter-empathy) in response to out-group members' misfortunes. Social dominance orientation (SDO), or the extent to which people prefer and promote group-based inequalities, is an ideological variable that is associated with a competitive view of the world, 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. Across three studies we show that among White individuals, higher SDO levels are associated with less empathy, and more counter-empathy in response to others' good and bad fortunes. More importantly, these reductions in empathy and increases in schadenfreude as a function of SDO were significantly stronger for Asian and Black targets than for in-group White targets when group boundaries were made salient prior to the empathy ratings. Finally, in a fourth study we show that this phenomenon is not dependent upon a history of status differences: higher SDO scores were associated with decreased empathy and increased counter-empathy for competitive out-group (relative to in-group) targets in a novel group setting. We discuss implications of these effects for hierarchy maintenance.

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