Press "Enter" to skip to content

The social connection can facilitate the dehumanization of the other

We live in an era hipersocial. The Internet and social networks, and the study of emotional intelligence, have triggered interest in the way in which we relate to each other, for the evolutionary origin of these relations, but also by the implications of the social relations between individuals.

A study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows us one of those implications: the social contact power the dehumanization of other people.

By dehumanizing the authors understand the inability to attribute a mind to the other, in the sense that it tends to treat the other individuals as lacking the ability of reasoning high level, or lack of consciousness. Thus, people dehumanised would lack the ability to think (as for centuries it has been believed that he spent with the animals) or feel (as objects).

The study consists of 4 experiments, but mencinaré the two most striking.

In one of the experiments, we used 38 subjects. The subjects were divided to create two experimental conditions: the condition of social connection (social connection condition) and the control condition (control condition). To the people of the condition of social connection they were invited to write essays about someone that they considered close to them, (a friend, a partner, a family member), describing how that person was paying his support, and how they believed that they would lend their support in the future. To the people in the control condition were invited to write about any person you meet in your daily life, but which had no interaction (some pedestrian, someone from work or school, or a complete stranger).

After the redacciónes, we asked the volunteers to evaluate the perceptions that were produced by the individuals type of four groups of people: rich people, middle-class people, drug addicts and people with disabilities. The assessment should be conducted by answering whether individuals were able to:

  • carrying out actions with purpose
  • reasoning by deep thoughts
  • experience pain
  • experience pleasure

These questions were chosen by the researchers because of its relationship with the mental capacities that supposedly the deshimanización denies. The answers were collected in a questionnaire to obtain a note number of responses (from 1=Deeply disagree, to 7=agree wholeheartedly).

Well then: the individuals of the condition of social connection tended to dehumanize the groups of drug addicts and the disabled, punctuating the questions of the questionnaires with a 1-point average.

In the second experiment that I will mention, was used by 59 participants, who were presented with a series of photographs. The researchers told the subjects that the people who appeared in them were terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks in the US. To part of the subjects were allowed to observe the images along to a friend, while the other subjects were made to examine the images in the company of a stranger (also a volunteer for the study).

After the observation of the images, the researchers asked the subjects if they would allow the use of methods of torture to interrogate suspected terrorists: individuals who had observed the images in the company of a friend, were more likely to implement methods of torture, and of a more expeditious manner, that the subjects that had been observed in the company of a stranger.

The results are tremendous. And the implications that the authors draw from their experiments, are also. In particular, they mention three:

1. The dehumanization is often associated with a visceral hatred for other people when it would be more correct to understand it as an indifference or apathy toward the mental states of others. So, people do not deshumanizaríamos to other individuals on the basis of an irrational hatred towards them, but on the basis of that indifference cognitive.

2. The dehumanization would have potential consequences further that the irrational violence or discrimination. In particular, the indifference cognitive can lead to contemplate the other as a means, an instrument to achieve ends. But it could also be the opposite case: the indifference of cognitive could promote the pro-social behavior, but at the cost of watching the other as agents who lack the autonomy of morality, unable to help themselves.

3. Finally, the social connection has significant benefits for the individual, but somehow also to us satiates the motivation to connect. So, you can enhance the distance between “us” and “them”. Then, the dehumanization not only is a function that results from the relationship between an observer and an observed, but also shares the strength of connections between people.

This last implication it is linked with one of the reflections that I had written in the post The two sides of Emotional Intelligence: empathy can be a weapon of double edge, that can connect us so closely to the individuals of our own group, which can increase the distances between individuals outside of our circle. Empathy is not a sufficient remedy to combat the dehumanization and the perceived differences between the individuals: the moral reasoning also have their role. In the words of one of the authors, in the overview of the study in Time magazine:

I think expanding the circle of empathy has been good for humankind […] But that’s only part of the story. Another part is [using moral guidelines] like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Image of Carl Lovén