How is one person able to commit crimes against another? Social psychologists say that the perpetrator fails to think spontaneously about the other person’s mind.
That failure dehumanizes the victim, putting him or her on par with objects or animals.
Evil people dehumanize their victims in committing genocide and other atrocities. But as research in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences explains, we all are capable of dehumanizing others.
Brain imaging studies corroborate the findings of social scientists, research author Lasana T. Harris, professor of social and organizational psychology at the Institute of Psychology in the Netherlands, states in “Why Economic, Health, Legal, and Immigration Policy Should Consider Dehumanization.”
These studies show areas of the brain responsible for social cognition fail to ignite when participants are shown pictures of the homeless or drug addicts, or when they play violent video games, or when heterosexual men view photos of underdressed women.
Harris explains that the social context—other people, institutions and culture within the environment—influences how one person views another. In other words, the social context shapes how one person thinks about the other person’s mind.
Consider fantasy sports leagues. Imaging studies have shown that regions of the brain engaged in social cognition deactivate when people “purchase” players in a fantasy league. Harris explains that the participants dehumanize the players so that they can calculate their worth based on performance.
Dehumanization also has implications in economics, health care and other societal realms. And as Harris points out, policy makers have the capacity to change the social context that influences how one group views another.
Harris proposes that dehumanization may have played a role in the recent financial crisis. The only way a lender could approve a subprime mortgage would be to ignore the distress the buyer would eventually face when the home gets repossessed, instead focusing on the commission from the loan and benefit to the company.
Policy makers and regulators need to be aware of conflicts of interest in which dehumanization can be promoted and rewarded.
Not all instances of dehumanization are harmful. Doctors and nurses may dehumanize patients out of necessity to blunt their own emotional responses to suffering.
Harris suggests perhaps healthcare workers who perform technical expertise avoid patient interactions to limit the cost of empathy on performance.
In the Courtroom
Legal decisions require making connections between the mind and the behavior. By dehumanizing the defendant—referring to the defendant only as the defendant with no allusions to personality traits—lawyers can achieve a less-severe sentence.
Policy makers can even the playing field by making sure factual evidence presented in a case appear alongside personality data.
When one person perceives another as less than human, he or she often is feeling what Harris describes as disgust. “People at the bottom of the social hierarchy receive disgust and contempt, presumably because of moral violations associated with such people,” the paper states.
One group chronically at the bottom is immigrants. But through policy, lawmakers can help society see immigrants as individuals rather than as part of a homogeneous group.
Policy makers are uniquely placed to shape the social context that influences dehumanization. Through policy, lawmakers can promote the well-being of the entire society and help ensure each member is viewed as a full human being.