The darker side of being people

donkey.jpgThere is an interesting piece of research that I came across the other day, recently published by psychologists at Harvard and Chicago and titled Social Cognition Unbound: Insights into Anthropomorphism and Dehumanization.

To cut a short (19 pages including references) story even shorter, the paper deals with two apparently opposite but nonetheless related phenomena: anthropomorphism (a tendency to associate nonhuman agents or objects with human qualities) and dehumanization (representing others as objects or animals and thus denying their essential humanity). While the concept and different instances of anthropomorphism is getting aired first, the real substantial core of the article is in fact the point about dehumanization.

The authors observe that when we associate human qualities to objects (such as notoriously ‘fickle’ computers), animals (such as pets) or abstract forces (such as weather or stock market), we also cast them in our minds as moral agents and thereby imagine them to both adhere to certain code of conduct as well as respond to our opinions and actions. As such, viewing our environment through anthropomorphic lens enables us to make sense of the otherwise unpredictable and unresponsive world, to deal with what George Devereux has termed as our “cosmic anxiety” over unresponsiveness of the matter. This is, for instance, the reason behind the custom to give human names to hurricanes, or why all-powerful gods have always been seen as alike to people who believe in them — leading a well-travelled sixth-century Greek philosopher Xenophanes to quip that if horses had gods they would surely look like horses.

Another influence that promotes anthropomorphization is the level of social connection – i.e. having weaker social links to others ” may lead people to seek connections with other agents and, in so doing, create humanlike agents of social support”. All this is of course pretty much harmless. If somebody calls their home stereo system “Jake” or wants to marry Eiffel Tower hardly concerns anybody else.

And this leads us to second part of the paper. The authors point out that

…inverting a theory of anthropomorphism may therefore provide insights into dehumanization. For instance, just as increased similarity to the self or humans increases the tendency to anthropomorphize a nonhuman agent, so too does decreased similarity increase the tendency to dehumanize other people. Consistent with this prediction, socially distant out-groups are frequently dehumanized, and those that are seen as the most dissimilar, such as drug addicts and homeless people, are also the most likely to be dehumanized.

While the point above is hardly news, the authors move on and consider the impact of social connectedness to dehumanization and come up with a following observation:

If feeling isolated increases the tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman agents, then feeling socially connected may likewise increase the tendency to dehumanize other people—that is, to fail to attribute basic features of personhood to other people. Consistent with this prediction, participants in one experiment who were experimentally induced to feel socially connected were more likely to deny humanlike mental states to others and to endorse dehumanizing violence.

And finally, there appears to be one more important contributing factor:

One major factor that increases independence and decreases the need for effective interaction with other people is having power over others. One recent set of experiments demonstrated that being in a position of power increased the tendency to objectify subordinates, treating them as a means to one’s own end rather than focusing on their essentially human qualities.

Thus, to recap: a prime situation for dehumanization and dehumanizing violence to arise is that of a majority group with a strong sense of shared identity facing a marginal out-group with marked differences (be it physical, cultural, behavioral or otherwise) combined with the first group being in the position of power over the latter. Of course, this should ring familiar to anyone who has read or watched Clockwork Orange, but for me the most interesting bit to take away from this article was the observation that a strong sense of belonging and shared identity is not necessarily only a benign thing but can, in combination with other factors, lead to some rather ugly outcomes. This was the case in Abu-Ghraib and Nazi Germany but is also very much present, albeit in a somewhat less brutish ways than those two examples, in an increasingly xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants and local minorities in many European countries. While it is clearly natural and probably to some extent inevitable that increasing uncertainty and social insecurity would lead to reinforcing the social identities, there appears to be a price to be paid for this sort of solidarity — and usually it ends up being paid by those who are weaker and different.


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