HIMAJA BOINAPALLI Psychology Enthusiast, In the area of human resource, mental health, well being worked with AIESEC
Black Lives Matter protests that began last month have sparked up similar social movements across the world, such as Palestinian Lives Matter, Russian Lives Matter, Muslim Lives Matter, & Papuan Lives Matter,where communities are protesting against systemic oppression and marginalization.
Research shows that different communities are indefinitely referred to as animals & savages in various ways; Blacks as apes & gorillas, Muslims as dogs, Syrian refugees as a bowl of skittles & pigs, Jews as rats, vermin, & parasites (holocaust), Tutsis as cockroaches (Rwandan genocide) etc. Women,LGBTQ, Dalits, Palestinians, specially abled, sex-workers, & people with mental illnesses have also been regular targets to dehumanizing treatment.(Haslam & Stratemeyer, 2016) We define dehumanization as “the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment.” (Maiese, 2003). Nick Haslam, a Psychology professor & eminent expert on the topic, proposed a dual model of dehumanization:
- Animalistic dehumanization refers to treating human as a subhuman/animals.
- Mechanistic dehumanization refers to using person as a means to an end/ seeing someone as merely a machine/tool for a specific job. We often see this type in organizations, interpersonal interactions, contexts of medicine & sexual objectification.
Psychological processes involved Dehumanization
1. In his book “Less than Human”, author David Smith(specializes in the philosophy of psychology), described dehumanization as a response to conflicting motives. He argued that if human beings want to harm someone; they need to have a way to deal with their innate inhibitions that morally prevent them from killing or breaking down other people. As it may be okay to kill a rat than a human being,discrimination of certain groups becomes more acceptable & justifiable,psychologically, once we think of & condemn them as sub humans/animals.
2. Perception-Discernment-Action narrative (Florini, 2019)
Based on one’s socialization process, context of a situation, & what we value in them (extrinsically based on their appearance, caste, socio-economic status etc., or intrinsically as just another fellow human), we perceive someone as a human being or sub-human. Dehumanized perceptions are not always brutal, but can also be mild, subtle in the form of disrespect & neglect,or even embedded in gestures. (Väyrynen & Laari-Salmela, 2015)
How do we relate to people based on our interactions? For example, addressing a person according to their social/professional roles such as captain, boss,assistant, mechanic, serves its purpose & functions. However,instrumentalist culture (using a person as a tool /means to an end) explains that this may lead to a tendency of ignoring the person behind, or leading the human being behind the societal role to become almost non existent. Their job/function dominates over who they are as a human, reducing them to an instrumental role.
Our thoughts and perceptions, as mentioned above, lead to our action and behaviour towards people.
- Categorization: As sub humans. Followed by,
- Imagery: Images such as rats, parasites, pigs to the categories,&
- Metaphors: References, analogies, & comparisons to animals (Thagard, 2018)
Under social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s “Us” Vs “Them” mind-set,using animal references towards certain communities can elicit emotions such as disgust, fear & hatred in us by shifting those negative feelings that we associate animals/insects with, onto the targeted communities. (I suggest reading about three classic experiments in Psychology-Philip Zimbardo prison experiment, Stanley Milgram electroshock experiment & Ascent of Man studies to understand the patterns of dehumanization in the world).
Psychological causes of Dehumanization:
Psychological processes that can cause dehumanizing behaviour. (Maiese, 2003)
- Deindividuation: The loss of identity of an individual in a group setting/people behaving differently in groups than their individual behaviour
- Projection: Attributing one’s unwanted beliefs and motives onto another person
Haslam & Stratemeyer, in 2016 reiterated the role of the following factors in facilitating dehumanization:
- Disgust Sensitivity: Predisposition to experiencing disgust)
- Social Dominance Orientation: Personality trait that reflects one’s attitudes & beliefs about domination and hierarchy of groups.
- Propaganda and authoritarianism, social media benefits such as invisibility, anonymity can also play a major role in the same.
Consequences & challenges:
There is enormous literature and historical evidence on the negative consequences of dehumanization, mild or brutal. Dehumanization can lead to moral exclusion, aggravated anti-social behaviour towards individuals/communities such as bullying, aggression, social rejection, harsher punishments, criminal culpability & sexual objectification of women.
Further, guilt of the perpetrator can lead to a dangerous vicious cycle of dehumanization among groups. (Haslam & Stratemeyer, 2016).
It also hampers psychological well-being, exacerbating mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, & adding to the stigma.Dehumanizing behaviour has significant effects on our brain, & guides it into turning on the disgust centres and turning off the empathy centres of our brain.Bastian & Haslam in 2011 pointed that mechanistic dehumanization has led victims into ‘cognitive deconstructive states’, showed by “reduced clarity, emotional numbing, cognitive inflexibility, & pervasive feelings of sadness and anger.A study (Caesens, Nguyen & Stinglhamber, 2018) concluded that abusive supervision leads to organizational dehumanization perceptions that have negative consequences, such as reduced employees’ jobsatisfaction, affective commitment, and raise turnover intentions.
WAYS TO COUNTER DEHUMANIZATION:
Practicing empathy, re-humanizing through words and images(same as what dehumanization starts with), forging quality human connections,establishing common/overarching identity, respecting perspectives, increased exposure to counter-stereotypes (Haslam & Stratemeyer, 2016) and inclusivity, reporting cyber-bullying & crime can help fight dehumanization.Similarly, HR of organizations can also focus on humanizing connections among employees & leaders.
Note: It is a commonplace in Indian slang and languages to use animal names to address/ insult/ joke/ show affection to someone. One should be mindful of the socio-political context, type of interaction & target person before using them, & refrain from normalizing the existing challenges. Here, one’s judgment about drawing a line is crucial. Quoting Ernest Hemingway, there is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; but true nobility is being superior to your former self”.
1-Bastian, B., & Haslam, N. (2011). Experiencing Dehumanization: Cognitive
and Emotional Effects of Everyday Dehumanization.
Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 33(4), 295-303.
2-Caesens, G., Nguyen, N., & Stinglhamber, F. (2018).
Correction to: Abusive Supervision and Organizational Dehumanization. Journal
of Business and Psychology, 34(5), 729-729. Doi: 10.1007/s10869-018-9596-z
3-Florini, K. (2019). Dehumanization in the workplace. SIMON
4-Haslam, N., & Stratemeyer, M. (2016). Recent research
on dehumanization. Current Opinion in Psychology, 11, 25-29. Doi: 10.1016/j.
5-Maiese, M. (2003). Dehumanization. Retrieved from
Thagard, P. (2018). The Psychology of Dehumanization.
6-Väyrynen, T., &Laari-Salmela, S.
(2015). Men, Mammals, or Machines? Dehumanization Embedded in Organizational
Practices. Journal of Business Ethics, 147(1), 95-113. Doi: