The Danger of Dehumanizing Others
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Social Impact Policy Dec 8, 2015

The Dan­ger of Dehu­man­iz­ing Others

Peo­ple who think oth­er groups are less evolved are more like­ly to sup­port retal­i­a­tion against them.

Dehumanization is demonstrated by a person being erased.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Nour Kteily

Emile Bruneau

Adam Waytz

Sarah Cotterill

His­to­ry is rife with exam­ples of how peo­ple dehu­man­ize those from dif­fer­ent races, reli­gions, or eth­nic back­grounds. Think about the fact that U.S. slaves were count­ed as three-fifths of a per­son when deter­min­ing con­gres­sion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion, or that Nazis rou­tine­ly referred to Jews as ver­min.”

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We like to think that such bla­tant exam­ples of bias are behind us. And, indeed, in recent years schol­ar­ly research has large­ly moved on and now focus­es on more sub­tle forms of dehu­man­iza­tion — that of doc­tors who think of their patients in terms of case num­bers, or man­agers who think of their employ­ees not as indi­vid­u­als but pure­ly in terms of their utility.

But the bla­tant form of dehu­man­iza­tion — think­ing that spe­cif­ic groups of peo­ple are less human than you — per­sists. And it needs to be stud­ied. That is the think­ing under­ly­ing new research from the Kel­logg School.

When I looked at the lit­er­a­ture on dehu­man­iza­tion,” says Nour Kteily, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions, there was a dis­con­nect between the types of dehu­man­iza­tion that I was see­ing and the very sub­tle ways that it was being assessed by researchers.”

These per­cep­tions are extreme. But they’re not lim­it­ed to a fringe.” —Nour Kteily

The research shows that bla­tant dehu­man­iza­tion is very much alive and well. It is also a strong pre­dic­tor of sup­port for poli­cies that retal­i­ate against groups of peo­ple, such as drone attacks against Arabs, or even down­right vio­lent vengeance.

Mea­sur­ing Dehu­man­iza­tion with the Ascent” of Nations

In a series of sev­en stud­ies, Kteily and his coau­thors, Adam Waytz, a Kel­logg asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of man­age­ment and orga­ni­za­tions, Emile Bruneau of Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, and Sarah Cot­ter­ill of Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, used the well-known Ascent of Man” dia­gram to deter­mine par­tic­i­pants’ will­ing­ness to bla­tant­ly dehu­man­ize oth­ers. The dia­gram, which has been altered and even par­o­died over the years, dates back to a Time-Life Books illus­tra­tion from the 1960s. It shows five fig­ures in sil­hou­ette who are depict­ed as being at dif­fer­ent stages of evo­lu­tion­ary devel­op­ment — from a stooped quadruped on the far left to an upright human on the far right.

In their stud­ies, the researchers asked par­tic­i­pants to rank where var­i­ous groups fall on the spec­trum of evo­lu­tion­ary development.

It is def­i­nite­ly a provoca­tive met­ric,” Kteily says. But we want­ed to cap­ture dehu­man­iza­tion in the most bla­tant and unam­bigu­ous terms pos­si­ble. We want­ed to make sure that there were no two ways about what’s going on here.”

The first study involved 201 Amer­i­cans recruit­ed through Amazon’s Mechan­i­cal Turk. These par­tic­i­pants were shown the Ascent of Man dia­gram on a com­put­er with 13 dif­fer­ent nation­al­i­ties or eth­nic and reli­gious groups list­ed below, and asked to indi­cate how evolved [they] con­sid­er the aver­age mem­ber of each group to be.”

Par­tic­i­pants did so by mov­ing a slid­er posi­tioned next to each group to any point on the Ascent of Man scale. The researchers con­vert­ed the respons­es to a numer­i­cal rank­ing from 0 to 100, with 100 rep­re­sent­ing the high­est point of evo­lu­tion, that being the sil­hou­ette cor­re­spond­ing to the full” human.

Euro­peans and Amer­i­cans ranked first and sec­ond with scores of 91.9 and 91.5, respec­tive­ly. Six oth­er groups were with­in two points of that, and thus sta­tis­ti­cal­ly indis­tin­guish­able from Amer­i­cans: Swiss, Japan­ese, French, Aus­tralians, Aus­tri­ans, and Ice­landers. Five groups scored sig­nif­i­cant­ly low­er: Chi­nese (88.4), South Kore­ans (86.9), Mex­i­can immi­grants (83.7), Arabs (80.9), and Mus­lims (77.6).

These per­cep­tions are extreme,” Kteily says. But they’re not lim­it­ed to a fringe, with one or two peo­ple dri­ving the effect. Pret­ty sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of peo­ple were will­ing to dehu­man­ize oth­er groups.”

Dehumanization of others is shown on the Ascent of Man image.
Graphic illustration by Karen Freese

The Boston Marathon Bombings

Tim­ing out­side the lab played a key role in anoth­er study. The authors had been col­lect­ing data on Amer­i­cans’ dehu­man­iza­tion of Arabs using Amazon’s Mechan­i­cal Turk for some time. So when the Boston Marathon bomb­ings occurred in April 2013, this pro­vid­ed the researchers with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to quick­ly col­lect new data to con­duct a before-and-after study and ask: Just how did the bomb­ings sway these perceptions?

In the wake of the bomb­ings, media out­lets had wide­ly report­ed that the broth­ers who car­ried out the bomb­ings were Mus­lim. Because the authors only had data on dehu­man­iza­tion of Arabs (and not Mus­lims) pri­or to the attacks, they focused their com­par­i­son on Arabs. As the researchers note in their paper, Although not all Arabs are Mus­lim and not all Mus­lims are Arab, these two cat­e­gories are strong­ly asso­ci­at­ed in the Unit­ed States and fre­quent­ly treat­ed as interchangeable.”

Giv­en that data, the researchers decid­ed to run an iden­ti­cal study right after the bomb­ing and found a spike in the dehu­man­iza­tion of Arabs by Amer­i­cans. Two months before the attacks, par­tic­i­pants had ranked Arabs about 10 points below Amer­i­cans on the Ascent of Man scale. Imme­di­ate­ly after it, the researchers found that Arabs ranked near­ly 16 points low­er than Amer­i­cans. Six months lat­er, how­ev­er, Amer­i­cans’ dehu­man­iza­tion of Arabs had returned to approx­i­mate­ly the pre-attack lev­el. The tem­po­rary spike in dehu­man­iza­tion cer­tain­ly sug­gests a causal rela­tion­ship between the bomb­ings and atti­tudes toward Arabs — though because the researchers sur­veyed dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple before and after the attack, this can­not be deter­mined conclusively.

Dehu­man­iza­tion of Arabs also appears to pre­dict par­tic­i­pants’ lev­el of sup­port for spe­cif­ic pub­lic poli­cies toward Arabs.

In the marathon bomb­ings’ imme­di­ate after­math, those who dehu­man­ized Arabs to a greater extent were sig­nif­i­cant­ly less like­ly to sup­port Arab immi­gra­tion and more like­ly to sup­port drone strikes in the Mid­dle East. Gen­er­al sup­port for mil­i­taris­tic coun­tert­er­ror­ism” — mea­sures such as tor­ture and tar­get­ing both civil­ians and com­bat­ants in bat­tle — were also asso­ci­at­ed with dehu­man­iza­tion, along with a desire for vengeance. The lat­ter was mea­sured by sup­port for a Twit­ter post assert­ing that Mus­lims bombed Boston. We as a plan­et need to wipe them off this world. Every one of them.”

Who Is Most Like­ly to Dehumanize?

The researchers also found inter­est­ing cor­re­la­tions between par­tic­i­pants’ will­ing­ness to dehu­man­ize oth­ers and their own per­son­al­i­ty types. To get at this, par­tic­i­pants were asked to take wide­ly used per­son­al­i­ty assess­ment tests.

The stud­ies found a strong cor­re­la­tion between the act of dehu­man­iz­ing oth­ers and social dom­i­nance ori­en­ta­tion” (SDO), which reflects the person’s belief in the hier­ar­chi­cal notion that some groups are inher­ent­ly supe­ri­or to oth­ers. The strongest asso­ci­a­tion was between dehu­man­iz­ing and the most aggres­sive vari­ety of SDO, known as SDO-Dom­i­nance, sug­gest­ing that bla­tant dehu­man­iza­tion is an overt way of ful­fill­ing some indi­vid­u­als’ desires to keep cer­tain groups at the bot­tom of the social hierarchy.

The researchers also found a sig­nif­i­cant but less pro­nounced asso­ci­a­tion between dehu­man­iza­tion and right-wing author­i­tar­i­an­ism, which is defined by a strong respect for author­i­ty fig­ures and estab­lished tra­di­tions, as well as enthu­si­asm for pun­ish­ing rule break­ers and those who refuse to conform.

The Stakes

It’s hard to argue that what we’re mea­sur­ing here isn’t [atti­tudes about whether] some­one is less than human,” Waytz says. Results from this project are an urgent reminder that real dis­crim­i­na­tion per­sists and con­tributes to polit­i­cal violence.”

Take, for instance, the fact that in Europe soc­cer fans some­times throw bananas at black play­ers. Or that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma some­times gets char­ac­ter­ized in polit­i­cal car­toons as an ape.

As glob­al cit­i­zens, we should be con­cerned,” Waytz says.

This rep­re­sents a call to action,” Kteily says.“I wouldn’t say there’s a direct link between what we’re study­ing and what will hap­pen in the busi­ness world tomor­row, but aside from the broad­er social con­cern, to the extent that we know that war and insta­bil­i­ty neg­a­tive­ly influ­ence glob­al mar­kets, it doesn’t bode well if these per­cep­tions are on the rise.”

The fact that bla­tant dehu­man­iza­tion towards cer­tain groups is both real and wide­spread is con­cern­ing, he says. It requires us to ask, How can we move beyond these very trou­bling per­cep­tions and improve atti­tudes and behav­iors between groups?”

Featured Faculty

Nour Kteily

Associate Professor of Management & Organizations

Adam Waytz

Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Theo Anderson is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.

About the Research

Kteily, Nour, Emile Bruneau, Adam Waytz, and Sarah Cotterill. 2015. “The Ascent of Man: Theoretical and Empirical Evidence for Blatant Dehumanization,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 109(5), Nov 2015, 901-931.

Read the original

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