How everyday dehumanization influences our empathy and behavior

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Reference: Simon, J. C., & Gutsell, J. N. (2021). Recognizing humanity: Dehumanization predicts neural mirroring and empathic accuracy in face-to-face interactions.Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 16(5), 463-473.

When you hear ‘dehumanization’, you might think of extreme conflict between groups, including violence and even genocide. Yet, dehumanization can also materialize in more subtle ways and in mundane situations. Denial of humanness can be split into two different forms. First, animalistic dehumanization, which, as its name suggests, likens others to non-human animals, and denies them cognitive capacities. Second, mechanistic dehumanization, which denies others’ emotional capacities and makes them seem like objects or machines. Seeing someone as similar to animals or machines still seems pretty extreme, so just how important can these different forms of dehumanization be in everyday interactions, like meetings with strangers?

Researchers at Brandeis University, Drs. Jeremy Simon and Jennifer Gutsel, used methods from neuroscience and psychology to answer these questions. Specifically, they tested whether we dehumanize others, and if we do, how this affects our interactions with and perceptions of other people.


Figure 1: Study flow of tasks completed by participants in Simon & Gutsell’s 2021 study

Thirty-six pairs of participants (72 participants total) participated in the Brandeis University experiment. The study was in multiple parts (see Figure 1). 

First, participant’s brain waves were measured using EEG (electroencephalogram) while they watched their partner squeeze a ball. This procedure allowed for a measure of mirroring: how much participants represented their partner’s movements and sensations in their own brains. Participant pairs then completed an icebreaker task where they were asked cues on index cards. Finally, they told each other the most positive and the most negative emotional stories they felt comfortable sharing. These sessions were videotaped, and participants then continuously rated how they themselves felt telling the story and how their partner felt. These ratings allowed for a measure of how accurately participants were able to recognize their partner’s feelings. They then completed a cooperation task, balancing a digital pendulum with joysticks. Participants who were better coordinated and who could better represent their partner’s movements would do better on this task. Finally, they completed another round of the stress ball squeezing to measure how much more they mirrored each other after getting to know one another. After their interaction, they rated the videos of the emotional stories they heard and shared, and completed questions that probed how much they saw their partner as human.

So, what did they find?

Animalistic dehumanization is associated with less brainwave synchrony

Results showed that the more people attributed uniquely human traits, such as reason and rationality, to their partners, the more their brain waves showed mirroring of their partner’s actions. In other words, the more they saw their partners as animalistically dehumanized, the less their brains mirrored their partner’s actions. However, the direction of this relationship remains to be established. Do we mirror people less because we see them as less human, or do we see them as less human because we mirror them less? This second hypothesis may lend support to the idea that mirroring serves a function, whereby we mirror people who are more relevant to understand them better. 

Seeing partners as animal-like leads to less emotional accuracy

Related to their first result, the researchers found that the more participants saw their partners as high in cognitive capacity (or low in similarity to non-human animals), the more they were accurate in identifying their partner’s moment-to-moment emotions when they recounted negative emotional stories. Again, there was no association between seeing their partner as machine-like and accuracy in empathy. Though it is tempting to interpret the results to mean that perceiving someone as less human leads to less empathy, it is also possible that stronger empathy leads individuals to see one another as more human.

Partners who see each other as machine-like are less coordinated

The researchers finally sought to examine whether seeing others as less human would affect behavior. Results showed that they did. However, unlike the first two findings, it was not seeing their partner’s as machine-like, and not animal-like, that worsened their coordination. In particular, pairs who perceived each other as having more desirable emotional capacities were able to coordinate better in the pendulum task.

Analyses also suggested that brain waves associated with mirroring may also lead to increased success in the coordination task. However, these results fell just short of statistical significance, so more research will be needed to confirm this outcome.

Conclusion & future directions: Our perceptions of humanity are variable and fragile

This research demonstrates that there is variability in how much we perceive others as human in everyday life, even when we are not incentivized to do so. This failure to see others as completely human also leads to diminished empathetic brain activity and changes in our behavior. 

An interesting question that remains to be seen is how different existing identities, like race (1, 2), gender (3) or even occupations (4) might intersect with these findings. Drs. Simon and. Gutsell originally planned to examine how cross-racial interactions influenced dehumanization, but had to stop data collection due to the pandemic. So watch this space for more!

Additional References

  1. Bain, P., Park, J., Kwok, C., & Haslam, N. (2009). Attributing human uniqueness and human nature to cultural groups: Distinct forms of subtle dehumanization. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 12(6), 789-805.
  2. Goff, P. A., Eberhardt, J. L., Williams, M. J., & Jackson, M. C. (2008). Not yet human: implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences. Journal of personality and social psychology, 94(2), 292.
  3. Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (1996). The ambivalent sexism inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of personality and social psychology, 70(3), 491.
  4. Valtorta, R. R., Baldissarri, C., Andrighetto, L., & Volpato, C. (2019). Dirty jobs and dehumanization of workers. British Journal of Social Psychology, 58(4), 955-970.