#229      22 min 37 sec
Less than us: Are people hardwired to dehumanize others?

Social psychologist Prof Nick Haslam explains what it means to be dehumanised, and how people are capable of viewing and treating their fellow human beings as less than themselves. Presented by Dr Dyani Lewis.

"You can alter these biases by being exposed to instances of a category that violate it; by being exposed to counter-stereotypical behaviour by members of groups that you might have a negative attitude towards." -- Prof Nick Haslam




Prof Nick Haslam
Prof Nick Haslam

Nick Haslam is Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne. He received his PhD in social and clinical psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and then taught for several years at the New School for Social Research in New York City. His research addresses topics in the psychology of social perception, personality, dehumanization, prejudice, refugee mental health and psychiatric classification. In addition to numerous articles and book chapters he has written or edited seven books, including Introduction to Personality and Intelligence, Yearning to Breathe Free: Seeking Asylum in Australia, Introduction to the Taxometric Method, and, most recently, Psychology in the Bathroom.

Credits

Host: Dr Dyani Lewis
Producers: Eric van Bemmel, Kelvin Param
Associate Producer: Dr Dyani Lewis
Audio Engineer: Gavin Nebauer
Voiceover: Nerissa Hannink
Series Creators: Kelvin Param & Eric van Bemmel

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VOICEOVER 
Welcome to Up Close, the research talk show from the University of Melbourne, Australia. 
DYANI LEWIS I'm Dyani Lewis. Thanks for joining us. Being able to quickly assess whether someone is friend or foe, has traditionally been helpful in times of war or conflict, but there is also a very ugly side to rushing to judge others. Prejudice, especially for those who are on the receiving end, is an incredibly dehumanising experience. To be dismissed by another person takes away from us our sense of individual human worth. But what does it mean to be dehumanised, and how or why are people capable of dehumanising others. Also, how aware are we of the snap judgements that we make about other people and can we control the biases that we have? To discuss the way in which we judge and dehumanise other people, we are joined on Up Close today by Professor Nick Haslam, Professor of Social and Clinical Psychology in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Welcome to Up Close, Nick. 

NICK HASLAM
Hello. 

DYANI LEWIS
Nick, human beings are not he most peaceful of creatures on this earth, and your work looks at how dehumanising someone or thinking of them as less than human can make it easier for us to harm them. Could you explain for us what dehumanisation is and in what circumstances people dehumanise other people?

NICK HASLAM
Well it isn't a complicated idea, but in essence, dehumanisation occurs whenever some people treat other people as less than human, and it could involve treating them as animals. It could involve referring to them by names such as ape or dog or pig, or something like that, or monster, or it could just involve treating others as if they lack moral value. It can even be quite subtle things. It doesn't necessarily have to be extreme kind of conditions. It could be very subtle ways in which we simply ignore someone's individuality or deny them certain kinds of equality. Researchers have talked about dehumanisation in a huge variety of contexts. Most often they talk about extreme contexts where violence is involved, like war, genocide, torture, atrocity, where the idea is that if you see someone else as being less than human, then the usual moral restraints on harming them disappear, and so it enables violence. That also enables us to feel less guilty about the violence that we've perpetrated. But you can also see dehumanising views of others in more everyday contexts - a lot of stereotypes picture people as somehow less than human. Disabled people or mentally disordered people are often denied human qualities. Often people have dehumanising experiences with bureaucracies which treat them as simply numbers or experience in the workplace times when they're simply a means to someone else's ends, or have experiences with medical technology, for instance, where they think they're simply a piece of meat. So really it's a very diverse field, and there's many ways of being dehumanised. 

DYANI LEWIS
Your examination of what it means to be dehumanised has led you to distinguish two different ways in which people dehumanise others. Can you explain what those two distinct types of dehumanisation are?

NICK HASLAM
Sure, look, we started with a really basic, but amazingly unexplored question, which is what do people think it is to be human? What makes us human? If you ask people that, you find that they tend to think about this in two distinct ways. So on the one hand, they think about human-ness as whatever it is that distinguishes us from other animals. On the other hand, they think about human-ness in terms of what distinguishes us from inanimate objects, like robots or machines. So on the one hand, those characteristics that distinguish us from animals, people often think intelligence, rationality, culture, morality, refinement, sophistication, things like that. So if that's part of what it is to be human, if you deny someone those characteristics, if you see them as coarse and bestial, then you're dehumanising them as if they were in some way animal-like. If, on the other hand, you deny someone the attributes that distinguish us from inanimate objects, like emotions and vitality and warmth, and things like that, then you're likening them to an object or robot. In a sense, those attributes which are unique to humans, or which people think are unique to humans, those that differentiate us from animals, are sort of head qualities, whereas those that distinguish us from inanimate objects are more heart qualities, emotional sorts of things. So you can deny someone head qualities, deny someone heart qualities. They're different ways in which you could be said to dehumanise someone. 

DYANI LEWIS
Do they have particular contexts then, in which they're used, those two different types of dehumanisation? 

NICK HASLAM
Yeah, look, it's hard to say exactly where they occur, because you can really see mixtures of them, but very often, if you think about inter-ethnic conflicts, generally-speaking, they will involve perceptions of other people as more like animals. So, those barbarians, or those beasts, those animals. That's pretty much the primary domain in which you see people seen as animals. Often you see people treated more as objects in the context of more technological kinds of dehumanisation, where people, say, they were treated as simply a body without a mind by some system or other, or by a medical treatment or by a doctor who didn't really pay much attention to their individuality. 

DYANI LEWIS
There are many metaphors in English, and I presume in other languages too, that compare people to animals or objects, and they're not all necessarily negative. So when you say someone is as busy as a bee or brave as a lion, how do these positive metaphors fit in with this dehumanisation work?

NICK HASLAM
It's a very good question. You're quite right. A lot of animals stand in for very positive qualities, and you wouldn't want to say that whenever you call someone by an animal name you're dehumanising them. A lot of us have children and refer to them occasionally by animal names, and you wouldn't say you were dehumanising your child when you do that. Nevertheless, a lot of animals do stand in as very insulting metaphors. Either they're seen as in some way demeaning of others; comparing someone to an ape or a dog is seen as in some way degrading them, pulling them down from human status. Others are seen as linking people to disgusting kinds of entity, like saying someone is a pig or a rat or a cockroach, or a slug or a leech. So although it's certainly true that some animal metaphors are positive, at least superficially positive, most of them tend not to be, and most of them have some sort of content involving seeing the other person as stupid, lacking self-control and morally worthless, and perhaps disgusting. 

DYANI LEWIS
This is Up Close. I'm Dyani Lewis, and in this episode we're talking about dehumanisation with social psychologist, Professor Nick Haslam. Nick, do we need to feel a particular dislike for members of another group in order for us to dehumanise them?

NICK HASLAM
We don't need to; it certainly helps. So generally-speaking, if you dislike someone, it tends to go along with the tendency to deny them a range of positive human qualities. But you can see a variety of more subtle forms of dehumanisation where this isn't the case. There's some fascinating research that's been done in Europe, for instance, which shows that citizens of one country tend to see citizens of neighbouring countries as lacking certain kinds of uniquely human emotions. So, you know, my group feels nostalgia, your group doesn't. Those sort of uniquely human characteristics are reserved for the in-group, if you like. There's no dislike of the foreigners, at least not an intense one, but nevertheless, they're somehow closer to animals than we are. There's a variety of other kind of examples like that, so some perceptions of indigenous or traditional peoples around the world are superficially quite positive - a lot of noble, savage, romantic kind of images of people. Yet at the same time they are in some respect dehumanising, because they're seeing those people as somehow less developed, more primitive, more barbaric, less civilised. 

DYANI LEWIS
I guess this would lead to the accusations that policies are often patronising towards those communities?

NICK HASLAM
Exactly. Something can be superficially positive and be framed as giving some sort of benefit, and yet at the same time is taking away someone's autonomy, taking away someone's capacity to self-determine. 

DYANI LEWIS
How aware are we of some of these subtle biases that we have?

NICK HASLAM
Very little, I think. It's very interesting how much there's a disjunction between what people think their attitudes are and what their underlying associations might be. Very few people will admit these days to having racist thoughts or sexist thoughts. It's always someone else, those bigots who have those thoughts, or those rednecks. But you often find that even people who are superficially very enlightened can hold quite disturbing associations. 

DYANI LEWIS
It does still seem quite incredible that on a one-on-one basis we could be telling our self that the person we are interacting with is somehow lesser than what we are, or less human than what we are. So how does dehumanisation affect our behaviour in those close quarters? 

NICK HASLAM
Well, very little research has been done on that, surprisingly enough, but probably it's quite simple. Probably when you see someone as less than human, even a bit subtly, you simply fail to empathise with them and fail to engage with them as people who have thoughts, emotions, feelings. There's even been some really interesting neuro-imaging research on this by Lasana Harris and Susan Fiske at Princeton University. What they do is they put people in a scanner and they show them images of other people, and they see what parts of the brain are activated. They show that if you look at pictures of people who are seen as disgusting, like homeless people or drug addicts in their study, those parts of the brain that are good at identifying mental states in other people - these are the empathy parts of the brain - simply don't activate. So you're seeing a picture of a human being, at some level you recognise it's a human being, but you simply fail to engage with them as people who have their own minds. So it probably is simply a matter of not thinking about others, not showing consideration for what they are thinking and feeling, and really just treating them as non-persons. 

DYANI LEWIS
Nick, psychology is often accused of being somewhat of a soft science, with less quantifiable measures than something like chemistry or physics. So could you explain for us how you go about measuring something like prejudice?

NICK HASLAM
Well, there are a variety of ways, and I should say, yes, indeed, it's a bit softer. It's because it's a bit harder, but yes, you can get a variety of quantified measures of prejudice. The simplest way is simply to give people a questionnaire, and we all know questionnaires have limits. You can measure prejudice by giving people a scale of what's called old-fashioned prejudice, where you simply ask them how much they endorse a variety of straightforwardly negative, stereotypical statements about some group or other. You can give people questionnaires which ask subtler, or what are often called modern forms of prejudice where, you're not so much endorsing a negative view of another group, but perhaps denying that they still suffer discrimination, or that they're still disadvantaged. One of the more recent ways of assessing prejudice is through computer-based tasks which try to get around the problems of introspection and the problems of distorting one's views by looking at non-conscious or automatic associations in the mind. 

DYANI LEWIS
So this is the role of the Implicit Association Test. Could you describe the set-up of an Implicit Association Test? 

NICK HASLAM
Sure, so this test is one of several that people use, and it basically asks people to make rapid classification decisions while seated in front of a computer. So what you might do in the classic example is look at a screen, and on the top left corner of the screen you'll see the words white and good, and in the top right-hand corner of the screen you'll see the words black and bad. Then what you'll see is a succession of words or pictures coming into the centre of the screen, and you have to decide, is this word or picture belonging to the left categories or the right categories. So if a picture of a white face comes on, you'll push a left key. If a picture of a black face comes on, you'll push the right key. If a good word comes on, you'll push the left key, if a bad word comes on, you'll push the right key. You have to do this very fast; about half a second is the deadline. So people find this task usually to be fairly easy, if they're saying is it white or good, or is it black or bad. Then you reverse it. So is it white or bad or is it black or good. People often have a lot more trouble doing it that way round. Why, in theory at least it's because people have an association in their mind, when we're talking about American racial attitudes, between whiteness and goodness and blackness and badness. So if you have to classify words as being black or bad, it's easy because those two concepts are linked, and white and good are linked, but if you reverse those associations, people have a lot more trouble. White or bad goes against their automatic associations. So you can look at the difference in the ease with which people do that task, how quick their reaction times are and how many errors they make on that task, as an index of how much they associate whiteness with goodness or blackness with badness.

DYANI LEWIS
So that example is testing racial biases that people might have. What other sort of biases are being tested with Implicit Association tests?

NICK HASLAM
IATs have been done with a variety of social categories towards overweight people, towards Muslims, towards women. One of the studies I find most fascinating was done recently by some psychologists at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who looked at people's associations between women and animals or objects using an IAT-like method. They found that, although there wasn't generally-speaking an association between women and animals more so than men and animals, or women and objects more than men and objects, nevertheless, those men who showed stronger associations between women and animals or women and objects were more likely to sexually harass women, and showed higher scores on measures of proclivity to rape. So there is some evidence that these sort of associations between groups other than racial groups and non-human entities have real social consequences.

DYANI LEWIS
So how have you used this test in your work on dehumanisation?

NICK HASLAM
We've used varieties of this test to look at how much people associate a variety of groups with animals or objects. We've looked at the extent to which people look at traditional or indigenous peoples with animals, we've looked at how much people see women versus men with animals or objects. We haven't done that many studies of this nature, but others have done many more. There's some fascinating work looking at perceptions of a variety of ethnic, racial, gender groups and how much they're associated with animals or other non-humans. 

DYANI LEWIS
For any given experiment, how many people do you need to be able to be confident that an association exists?

NICK HASLAM
Generally these effects are quite powerful, and so you can usually get away with samples of 40 or 50. Of course more is always better, but these effects are so powerful that most people display them. 

DYANI LEWIS
I'm Dyani Lewis, and my guest today is social psychologist, Professor Nick Haslam. We're talking about the very human behaviour of prejudice, here on Up Close. Nick, to what extent is an Implicit Association Test measuring personal beliefs and biases versus associations and messages that we might absorb from the culture around us?

NICK HASLAM
That's a really difficult question, and there's still some debate about that in the literature. So on the one hand, it could simply be that even if you associate whiteness with goodness and blackness with badness, you don't necessarily harbour any personal animus towards black people or great preference for white people. It could simply be that you've absorbed, as you say, the existing stereotypes. Again, it's very hard to say whether that's true or not. Nevertheless, that is after all, the culture surrounding you. The stereotypes you are surrounded by are where you learn your prejudices from, and you do find, generally-speaking, that people who have stronger associations of this nature do tend to discriminate more. So there's some evidence at least, that these associations do influence people's behaviour. 

DYANI LEWIS 
Given that many of us are unaware of the unconscious biases that we harbour, what do you do with the results of these tests? Do you provide participants with feedback on their hidden biases?

NICK HASLAM
You can. So we generally don't in our studies, for a variety of reasons, but there are websites where you can do Implicit Association tests and you can get feedback which will tell you how strong the association is. Very often they're eye-opening to participants - people who are sure that they don't harbour any bias find that they do, according to the test. So you can either discount the test and say it's all a load of rubbish, or you can take it seriously and think, well, maybe I do have some sort of awareness of this association. Maybe the stereotype is present in some way in my mind, even if consciously I disavow it. Even if it goes against my egalitarian principles or my politics, nevertheless, it's there. I think that does serve some benefit, a subconsciousness-raising benefit that prejudice, stereotyping, aren't just things that afflict a small number of rednecks or bigots, but it's something that we all have to deal with. I think that's a very beneficial message.

DYANI LEWIS
Nick, we all do harbour biases, but there still can be procedures that we can put in place to lessen their effects, aren't there?

NICK HASLAM
These biases aren't things that never change. You can alter these biases by being exposed to instances of a category that violate it; by being exposed to counter-stereotypical behaviour by members of groups that you might have a negative attitude towards. 

DYANI LEWIS
So I guess this would be a very good argument for positive stereotypes on things like TV shows and in movies?

NICK HASLAM
Positive stereotypes do help - not just positive stereotypes, but showing people warts and all doesn't hurt as well. Having rounded characters is more important, I think, personally, than having one-dimensionally good characters. It's not just a matter of positivity. You want to see other people not simply as being all good, as being angels - they're not - but rather as being fully human, complex creatures just as you are.

DYANI LEWIS
We've talked a lot about the negative consequences of dehumanisation, but are there ever circumstances where it is actually beneficial to dehumanise someone?

NICK HASLAM
Good question again. I don't know, but the example that people usually bring up in this context is surgeons, or people who are having to inflict some sort of pain for a greater good - a longer-term good. So maybe if you were going under the knife, you wouldn't want a surgeon who was trembling with empathy when wielding the scalpel. You would want that doctor perhaps to see you as a piece of meat for the benefit of not being impaired by all of that empathy and all of that anxiety that might come with it. So occasionally it might be good for people, strategically and temporarily, to see you as less than human in order to do something for your own good, which might be impaired otherwise. But generally-speaking, I think there are very few examples, and again, the problem in medicine is probably too little empathy more than too much empathy. 

DYANI LEWIS
Nick, the way in which we have, in the past, denied people like women or indigenous minorities the right to vote, it seems to have been something that we have been able to justify to ourselves, and perhaps because we are able to think of others as lesser than ourselves. But are we becoming more humane towards out-groups as time goes on, or is this behaviour something that we will be struggling with for eternity?

NICK HASLAM
Big question. Look, I think there are reasons for optimism, guarded optimism about that. As Peter Singer and others have argued, the moral circle, that is the range of creatures or entities that we feel moral concern for has expanded over recent history, and as you say, there's been all sorts of progresses in that department. So I think there's plenty of evidence that people are capable of changing and overcoming these limiting, dehumanising stereotypes of certain groups. On the other hand, the disturbing finding of much of this research is that some of those dehumanising pictures still persist in people's heads. People still tend to think that women are more like animals than men. People still tend to think African Americans are more like apes than white Americans.  There's a variety of these dehumanising stereotypes that do persist even after historical change has made them no longer acceptable. So the short answer is, plenty of cause for optimism, plenty of positive change, but at the same time there are some hurdles still to climb. 

DYANI LEWIS
Nick, thank you for being our guest today on Up Close and talking with us about the psychology of prejudice and dehumanisation.

NICK HASLAM
You're most welcome. 

DYANI LEWIS
Nick Haslam is Professor of Social and Clinical Psychology in the School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Relevant links, a full transcript and more info on this episode can be found at our website, at upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Up Close is a production of the University of Melbourne, Australia. This episode was recorded on 18 December, 2012. Producers for this episode were Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel. Associate Producer was myself, Dyani Lewis, with audio engineering by Gavin Nebauer. Up Close is created by Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param. Until next time, goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You've been listening to Up Close. We're also on Twitter and Facebook. For more info visit upclose.unimelb.edu.au. Copyright 2013, the University of Melbourne. 


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