Hot Topic

The Psychology of Social Inequality

Social inequality, the unequal distributions of resources, social status, or power between individuals and groups is a structuring feature of many social relations. At the same time, increasing socio-economic inequality is considered as one of the most pressing problems of modern societies. This Hot Topic addresses both the psychological determinants of inequality (e.g., social categorization, comparisons, stereotyping, communication, motivated cognition, or political attitudes) as well as its psychological consequences (e.g., health deficits, power effects on information processing, intergroup conflict, or collective action).


Susan Fiske
Susan Fiske, Princeton, USA

„Talking Up and Talking Down: Power of Positive Speaking“

Pervasive positivity biases cause polite communicators to omit unnecessary negativity, but this has distinct implications up and down the status hierarchy. In our recent research, communicators omit negativity in describing individuals and stereotypic groups, especially given three conditions: First, negativity omission emerges with self-presentation concerns such as public audiences. Second, negativity omission especially occurs also if the impression is ambivalent because communicators can report the positive and omit the negative without lying. Third, negativity omission occurs especially on the primary dimensions of social cognition, warmth and competence, as indicated in Fiske, Cuddy, and Glick’s Stereotype Content Model.

In this program of studies, negativity omission creates innuendo and allows stereotypes to stagnate over time. Listeners do hear the innuendo and infer negativity from its omission. Likewise, impression-managers use positive innuendo, deliberately downplaying their warmth or competence to convey the other. Status determines which strategy people use when: High-status speakers talk down (warmly) and low-status speakers talk up (competently), causing mismatched goals across status divides. In the U.S., racial divides imitate status, but the principles likely apply with status divides in various cultures. Presidential candidates who are white Democrats, as well as other low-authoritarian communicators, especially show this effect in communicating to minority but not white audiences. Respectful and effective leadership requires knowing that subordinates seek respect for their competence and that merely being nice to them (or about them) implies they lack competence. Talking down to people demonstrates the power of positive speaking.

Susan T. Fiske is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University, where she investigates cognitive stereotypes and emotional prejudices, culturally, interpersonally, and neuro-scientifically, with policy implications. Her books include The HUMAN Brand: How We Relate to People, Products, and Companies (with Chris Malone, 2013); Envy Up, Scorn Down: How Status Divides Us (2011); and Social Cognition (with Shelley Taylor, 2013, 4/e). She edits the Annual Review of Psychology, PNAS, and Policy Insights from Behavioral and Brain Sciences; was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; and won mentoring awards from both Princeton University and the Association for Psychological Science. Susan Fiske is one of the most distinguished social psychologists worldwide. She developed highly influential theories, such as the Continuum Model of Impression Formation or the Stereotype Content Model, shaping the fields of social cognition and intergroup relations research.  

Invited Symposium

Social Inequality: Its Psychological Determinants, Processes, and Consequences

Julia Becker (Osnabrück; Chair): Social class symbols at demonstrations: How the middle class excludes the working class from protest against social injustice

Thomas Kessler (Jena; Co-Chair): Stupid Meritocracy: Social inequality and cognitive functioning

Susan Fiske (Princeton): Grolar Bears and Other Mash-Ups in Modern Inequality

Russell Spears (Groningen): Routes to radical action for disempowered minorities: Nothing to Lose, but when to act?