Strong social bonds promote health, belonging — and torture

Tom Jacobs describes a recent study regarding the relationship between social bonds and dehumanization.

It was no surprise when a recent meta-study found people with strong social support networks tend to live longer, healthier lives. As the Mayo Clinic notes on its website, having close, lasting relationships strengthens one’s feelings of security, self-worth and sense of belonging.

But there appears to be a dark side to those life-enhancing bonds. Newly published research suggests they may make it more likely you’ll view those outside your social group as less than human —and treat them accordingly.

“Connecting with others brings individuals closer to each other, but moves them further from people from whom they are disconnected,” Adam Waytz of Northwestern University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “The most tightly knit groups — from military units to athletic teams — may also be the most likely to treat their adversaries as subhuman animals.”

Waytz and Epley are scholars of dehumanization — the tendency for people to think of others as somehow less than fully human. It is at the root of racism (consider the well-documented tendency of many white people to think of blacks as ape-like), and it provides internally permission for both crimes (such as the taking of innocent lives during wartime) and misdemeanors (ignoring the homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk).

The researchers argue that “feeling socially connected to others may enable people to represent more distant others as subhuman.” Since their need for social contact has been satiated, such people are less motivated to consider the “interests, attitudes, feelings and preferences” of those outside the group — commonalities that reinforce our shared humanity.

“Being socially connected not only diminishes the motivation to connect with others, but may also diminish the perceived similarity with more distant others,” they add, “because social connections delineate those within one’s social circle and those outside of it.”

In other words, people tend to identify with their fellow group members, meaning they’re more likely to perceive outsiders as different. And as earlier research has shown, when people are viewed as dissimilar to ourselves, “they are evaluated as less humanlike as well.”…

Click here to read the article in its entirety on Miller McCune’s website.

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