How Hateful Rhetoric Can Create a Vicious Cycle of Dehumanization
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Social Impact Policy Jan 4, 2016

How Hate­ful Rhetoric Can Cre­ate a Vicious Cycle of Dehumanization

The way we feel per­ceived can have dan­ger­ous consequences.

Two arms erase each other in a cycle of dehumanization.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Nour Kteily

Gordon Hodson

Emile Bruneau

As anti-Mus­lim rhetoric increas­es, Amer­i­can offi­cials are cau­tion­ing that it could val­i­date extrem­ists’ per­cep­tions that Amer­i­cans are wag­ing a war on Islam. Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry, for exam­ple, said Don­ald Trump’s state­ments endan­ger nation­al secu­ri­ty” by hand­ing ISIS and oth­er ter­ror­ists a recruit­ment tool.

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New research from the Kel­logg School lends cre­dence to this fear.

The research shows that feel­ing dehu­man­ized by anoth­er group can lead you to dehu­man­ize that group in return, which can increase sup­port for aggres­sive actions against them. Mean­ing, if Amer­i­cans think that Mus­lims see them as sav­ages, Amer­i­cans will be more like­ly to return the favor,” per­ceiv­ing Mus­lims to be sav­ages. And both groups will be more like­ly to sup­port aggres­sive acts — like drone strikes or tor­ture — against the other.

It can cre­ate, says Kellogg’s Nour Kteily, this vicious cycle where peo­ple are con­firm­ing the oth­er side’s expec­ta­tions of how [oth­ers] view them.”

When they see you as ani­mals, you tend to reply by see­ing them as ani­mals. When they see you as human, you tend to reply by see­ing them as human.”

But the research also gives rea­son for hope.

When a group of peo­ple believes anoth­er group human­izes them, that first group is more like­ly to human­ize the oth­ers in return. So, for exam­ple, if non-Mus­lim Amer­i­cans reach out to Mus­lim neigh­bors to denounce hate speech against them, or if for­eign Mus­lims voice their admi­ra­tion of Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy, the cycle could be broken.

When they see you as ani­mals, you tend to reply by see­ing them as ani­mals,” says Kteily, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions. When they see you as human, you tend to reply by see­ing them as human.”

The Vicious Cycle of Dehumanization

Pre­vi­ous research has shown that when we feel dis­liked by anoth­er group, we tend to respond in a vari­ety of ways, some­times becom­ing more uncom­fort­able around that group, and some­times rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing by express­ing dis­like towards that group. But Kteily, and coau­thors Gor­don Hod­son of Canada’s Brock Uni­ver­si­ty and Emile Bruneau of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, want­ed to get at a dif­fer­ent aspect of inter­group con­flicts: What hap­pens when one group feels dehu­man­ized by another?

Kteily and coau­thors had pre­vi­ous­ly demon­strat­ed that Amer­i­cans are will­ing to bla­tant­ly dehu­man­ize oth­er groups — Arabs or Mex­i­can immi­grants, for exam­ple — rat­ing them as less evolved when asked to show where they fall on an Ascent of Man graph­ic. [Read more about this research here.]

This new­er research builds upon that work. In a series of ten stud­ies, the researchers asked Amer­i­cans recruit­ed online about Arabs and Mus­lims. They also asked Israelis about Pales­tini­ans, and Hun­gar­i­ans about eth­nic Roma. Some stud­ies led par­tic­i­pants to believe that oth­er groups dehu­man­ized them, and oth­ers just gauged the par­tic­i­pants’ exist­ing beliefs about whether oth­er groups dehu­man­ized them with­out receiv­ing spe­cif­ic prompts.

The dis­tinc­tion between mere dis­like and actu­al dehu­man­iza­tion was mea­sured by look­ing at the dif­fer­ence in respons­es to state­ments like Arabs do not have pos­i­tive atti­tudes towards Amer­i­cans,” ver­sus Arabs think Amer­i­cans are beasts,” as well as by see­ing where par­tic­i­pants ranked oth­er groups on the Ascent of Man scale. Thus, the researchers were able to sta­tis­ti­cal­ly dis­tin­guish dehu­man­iza­tion from dis­like, both in terms of indi­vid­u­als’ expec­ta­tions about how the oth­er group per­ceived them as well as in terms of their own atti­tudes towards those groups.

In each study, the researchers showed that the more par­tic­i­pants believed the oth­er group dehu­man­ized them, the more like­ly they were to dehu­man­ize in return, over and above the effects of feel­ing dis­liked by that group.

Aggres­sive Actions

This cycle of dehu­man­iza­tion is of par­tic­u­lar con­cern because the more you dehu­man­ize anoth­er group, the more like­ly you are to con­done aggres­sive or even vio­lent actions against them.

If you think about the way that Trump is talk­ing, [Mus­lims] might feel that they’re per­ceived like ani­mals,” Kteily says. They might respond by see­ing Amer­i­cans as ani­mals” — cre­at­ing a cycle where Mus­lims act aggres­sive­ly toward Amer­i­cans, con­firm­ing to Amer­i­cans that Mus­lims think they are ani­mals, caus­ing Amer­i­cans to act aggres­sive­ly, con­firm­ing to Mus­lims that Amer­i­cans think they are ani­mals. And so on and so forth.

The researchers demon­strat­ed a link between feel­ing dehu­man­ized and sup­port for aggres­sive actions in a num­ber of their stud­ies. In one, they asked Amer­i­cans about their feel­ings toward ISIS in the days after the Jan­u­ary 2015 Char­lie Heb­do attacks in Paris.

The more dehu­man­ized a par­tic­i­pant felt by ISIS, the more like­ly they were to dehu­man­ize ISIS, and the more like­ly they were to sup­port state­ments like, To put an end to ter­ror­ist acts by ISIS, I think it is OK to use enhanced inter­ro­ga­tion techniques.”

The researchers also looked at dehu­man­iza­tion in the con­text of the Iran­ian nuclear deal nego­ti­a­tions. They found that the amount a par­tic­i­pant felt dehu­man­ized by Ira­ni­ans direct­ly influ­enced how like­ly they were to sign a peti­tion urg­ing Con­gress to exam­ine mil­i­tary options against Iran.”

These aggres­sive acts need not be on the scale of inter­na­tion­al mil­i­tary ini­tia­tives. They can be more every­day occurrences.

Kteily and Bruneau wrote an op-ed in the Wash­ing­ton Post in Sep­tem­ber after 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrest­ed for bring­ing a home­made clock to school. Dehu­man­iz­ing per­cep­tions of Mus­lims among some Amer­i­cans may have con­tributed to this over­re­ac­tion, they write.

By dehu­man­iz­ing mem­bers of cer­tain groups, we see them as more threat­en­ing and aggres­sive,” they write. This might help explain how an innocu­ous exper­i­ment became a men­ac­ing threat.”

For his part, Ahmed said of the arrest, It made me feel like I wasn’t human.”


The final two of the researchers’ ten stud­ies shows that the trend can be flipped on its head. When a group feels human­ized, they human­ize in return.

In one of these stud­ies, one group of par­tic­i­pants read a pur­port­ed­ly real arti­cle that sup­pos­ed­ly sum­ma­rized find­ings from a U.N. report on Mus­lims’ per­cep­tions of Amer­i­cans. These per­cep­tions described Amer­i­cans in human­iz­ing terms, refer­ring to them as being cul­tur­al­ly advanced” and enlight­ened.” The rest of the par­tic­i­pants did not read this article.

The two groups of par­tic­i­pants — those who read the human­iz­ing arti­cle and those who did not — ranked sim­i­lar­ly in terms of prej­u­dice against Mus­lims. But they var­ied in their lev­el of dehu­man­iza­tion of Mus­lims: Those who read about Mus­lims’ human­iz­ing per­cep­tions of Amer­i­cans ranked Mus­lims as more evolved on the Ascent of Man scale.

On a par­tic­u­lar­ly encour­ag­ing note, the pos­i­tive per­cep­tions that were includ­ed in this pre­tend arti­cle were based on real research into Mus­lims’ atti­tudes toward Americans.

There is a feel­ing of frus­tra­tion amongst Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties around the world about how they feel like they’re por­trayed by peo­ple like Trump,” Kteily says. At the same time, there’s also a lot of recog­ni­tion of Amer­i­can accom­plish­ments, and a great respect for many Amer­i­can insti­tu­tions, which are, in many ways, human­iz­ing perceptions.”

Featured Faculty

Nour Kteily

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Emily Stone is research editor of Kellogg Insight.

About the Research

Kteily, Nour, Gordon Hodson, and Emile Bruneau. Forthcoming. “They See Us as Less Than Human: Meta-Dehumanization Predicts Intergroup Conflict Via Reciprocal Dehumanization.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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