ERC Starting Grant Demo

How Sympathy and Aversion Are Determined

We tend to notice the negative qualities of strangers more than the positive ones. Even if we don’t have any bad intentions.

When we meet strangers, we first look for traits that distinguish them from us. “This is simply because of basal learning processes,” explains Professor Hans Alves. “If we want to define a new category in the information that comes flooding in, we have to set it apart from the familiar by looking for differences.” The differences between people or groups are often negative, because negative aspects are more diverse than positive ones and are therefore more suitable for differentiation. For example, we know more terms for negative traits than for positive ones, and the universe of negative behaviors is infinitely diverse. It is often the positive qualities that we have in common with strangers; it is in the negative ones where the differences lie. “So the fact that we see mainly the negative is not always our intention and does not only serve to make us feel better about ourselves,” as he outlines his theory.

In his ERC grant, Alves plans to explore in greater detail which characteristics we look at when confronted with new people or groups and how we evaluate them. This is how he wants to fathom how stereotypes and prejudices develop and why they are so often negative.

Going forward, Hans Alves will be looking on the role of the media: How do newspapers and online media report on minorities? Which attributes are mentioned, which are not? “In reporting, for example, characteristics of the perpetrator are often mentioned that distinguish them from the broader readership – for example, by nationality. Majority characteristics like ‘the German’ tend not to be mentioned, minority characteristics like ‘the Syrian’ are.” The consequences this has for the perception of such groups is the subject of research.

The project starts in 2021.

Professor Hans Alves

Professor Hans Alves is Professor of Social Cognition at Ruhr University Bochum.


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