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 FRASER UNIVERSITY.
4-Haslam, N., & Stratemeyer, M. (2016). Recent research on dehumanization. Current Opinion in Psychology, 11, 25-29. Doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.03.009
5-Maiese, M. (2003). Dehumanization. Retrieved from
6-Thagard, P. (2018). The Psychology of Dehumanization.Retrieved from
7-Väyrynen, T., &Laari-Salmela, S. (2015). Men, Mammals, or Machines? Dehumanization Embedded in Organizational
Practices. Journal of Business Ethics, 147(1), 95-113.
About the Author.
Himaja Boinapalli, is a psychology enthusiast. In the area of human resource, mental health, well being and has worked with AIESEC