We tend to dehumanize those from outgroups (groups to which we do not belong). This process serves to distance ourselves psychologically from them, which subsequently leads to the disliking of that person and/or their group. This process is often relatively passive, and we are largely unaware of this process. 

But we also actively dehumanize others, as a deliberate strategy, in order to justify negative thoughts, feelings, and actions toward others. Sometimes the outcome is dramatic and based in clearly negative intentions -- consider the Nazi dehumanization of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, as a precursor to their incarceration and mass-killing. Sometimes dehumanization can be much less dramatic and can occur in everyday modern life (Haslam, 2006). Consider the physician who “sees” a patient, or even a “disease”, rather than focusing on the individual (e.g., “John Smith”). This is almost a necessary element of the doctor-patient relationship. If doctors formed deep, emotional, individuated, and humanized bonds with all patients it would become problematic to make the very difficult decisions that all doctors must make (e.g., whether to devote resources, time, and drugs to a specific patient at the cost of such resources to another patient). In the words of Haque and Waytz (2012), “dehumanization is endemic in medical practice”.

Government officials dehumanize us, as does your bank, as do you (I suspect), when making decisions that negatively affect large numbers of people. I suspect that many Congress leaders in the US actively avoided humanizing perceptions of those who will be hurt by the recent “Sequester” decision to substantially cut government spending. If these politicians had to sit at the kitchen tables of families losing jobs and healthcare options, presumably they would grapple more with these decisions. Staying psychologically distant from others enables us to make decisions that impose negative outcomes on others.

But it is also important to keep in mind that people strive to make sense of the world. We want to see the world as having meaning and predictability. One way to do this is to dehumanize the dehumanizers, what I call “meta-dehumanization”. For instance, it is very common for us to consider Nazis as less-than-human given their instigation of the Holocaust. In our minds, we convince ourselves that they did it because they were not human  -- they were monsters. We particularly see leaders (e.g., Hitler, Himmler) in demonic terms.

We like and appreciate such narratives, even if they disturb us. We do not seek to challenge the narrative, and resist information challenging these deeply-held convictions, for fear of having to rethink our beliefs about how the world works.

In a recent article, McCrum and Downing discussed an interesting case of a man named Lutz Becker, born in Germany during WWII. As an adult, he sought to understand this disturbing passage of human history. He managed to track down videos made of Hitler and his inner circle by Eva Braun (who eventually married Hitler at the end of his life). As an insider, she was given unique access to this group of men as they dropped their guard. This film footage provided insights into these men that differ considerably from their well-groomed and stylized propaganda footage portraying them as strong and moral etc.

What was caught on film and later revealed to movie-goers? In the words of McCrum and Downing:

“Braun's home movies, mostly shot in Hitler's fortified chalet in Berchtesgaden, in the Bavarian Alps, have a naive innocence. She captures in the private life of the Nazi high command what Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil". In Braun's footage, we see Hitler and his cronies relaxing on the terrace of his chalet. They drink coffee and take cakes; they joke and pose for the camera. Hitler talks to the children of his associates, or caresses his Alsatian, Blondi. The camera (in Eva Braun's hands) approaches Hitler in rare and intimate close-up. Occasionally, when a visitor from outside the party elite appears, the camera retreats to a more respectful distance. Mostly, however, Braun's cine-camera is among the party circle, at Hitler's side, and at his table. Most of the footage is in colour, with an extraordinary immediacy.”

And how did audiences react to these new insights? If you think “with deep fascination and interest”, you’d be wrong. McCrum and Downing suggest that there were “limits to the public’s appetite for the home life of Adolf Hitler” when released at the 1973 Cannes Film festival. Specifically:

“The audience was outraged, booing and whistling at the screen, with cries of "Assassins!" The presentation of the Führer as a friendly uncle, a petit bourgeois figure in a suit and tie, popping in and out of a family gathering, was intolerable. The iron-clad image of Hitler so carefully shaped by Heinrich Hoffman still exerted a fierce grip on the public imagination.”

In short, people were outraged and incensed to see Hitler in humanistic terms. As noted by the filmmaker, “I was punished for puncturing a negative myth…..People hate it when you tinker with their mythologies”. (he notes, however, that over time there has developed an increasing interest in such intimate, human insights into historical political figures).

To summarize, we frequently dehumanize others, both passively (without much effort) and actively (with effort, to justify negative treatment of others). But we also meta-dehumanize, effectively dehumanizing the dehumanizers (e.g., considering Nazis as less human given that their dehumanization of others). And we psychologically “need” to do so. Attempts to humanize our demons “throws a spanner into the works” (as Brits say), requiring us to test our own assumptions about others and how the world works. To be clear, Hitler clearly was a monster, and possibly even demonic, but only figuratively, not literally. He was, alas, all-too-human. He possessed personality characteristics that predisposed him to torture and kill others, and he existed in a particular social climate that fed into his mindset and facilitated his actions. I encourage readers to avoid thinking in simple terms when trying to explain complex historical or contemporary outcomes. If we pay more attention to Hitler’s human nature, and less to the mythologies that elevate him to the level of a super-human demon, we will be rewarded with deeper and more accurate insights into human nature.

References and Suggested Readings:

Bandura, A. (1999). Moral disengagement in the perpetration of inhumanities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 193–209.

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (2010). Exploring the roots of dehumanization: The role of animal-human similarity in promoting immigrant humanization. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 13, 3-22. DOI: 10.1177/1368430209347725

Haque, O.S., & Waytz, A. (2012). Dehumanization in medicine: Causes, solutions, and functions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 176-186.

Haslam, N. (2006). Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology             Review, 10, 252-264. doi: 10.1207/s15327957pspr1003_4

Hodson, G., & Costello, K. (2012, Dec 15). The human cost of devaluing animals. New Scientist, 2895, 34-35. http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21628950.400-the-link-between-devaluing-animals-and-discrimination.html 

Hodson, G. & MacInnis, C.C., & Costello, K. (forthcoming).  (Over)Valuing “Humanness” as an Aggravator of Intergroup Prejudices and Discrimination. In P. Bain, J. Vaes, & J.-Ph. Leyens (Eds.), Advances in understanding humanness and dehumanization. London: Psychology Press.

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