A few weeks ago the world was aghast with horror after witnessing the devastating factory collapse in Bangladesh. We are now fixated on the incredible story of a survivor found after two weeks of lying buried in the ruins. But it is extremely important to keep our focus on the number of lives lost, now well over 1000 people, with many more are likely to die from sustained injuries in the near future. It is psychologically difficult to maintain such focus, particularly when we learn that 30 factories in that building made extremely cheap clothing for Western markets. Put simply, these labourers suffered and toiled, without decent salaries or working conditions, to directly serve people in the rich world. And there are many, many such factories scattered throughout the poorer regions of the world. As I’ve observed in earlier columns on the Holocaust and our horrendous mistreatment of factory-farm animals, our human nature allows us to participate in such negative activities thanks to our ability to divert attention from the harm caused and our own role in such atrocities.

What can psychology inform us about how this is possible?

Some explanations are clearly situated within the person: some people are particularly likely to exploit others to benefit themselves. Those lower (vs. higher) in Honesty-Humility, for instance, are characterized as being relatively “sly, deceitful, greedy, pretentious, hypocritical, boastful, and pompous” (Ashton, 2013, p.71) as opposed to being modest, fair-minded, and honest etc. Such people seem prime candidates to exploit poor workers in other countries, and undoubtedly do. They may very well be the central players making decisions about working conditions and salaries. But this is only part of the puzzle, because the real problem is that very many people contribute to such problems. Large-scale exploitation of workers represents a societal problem, and we must avoid the temptation to point our fingers at a select few perpetrators given that we (collectively) feed the consumer need fueling such cheap-labour industries.

From a social psychological perspective, there are several factors that clearly contribute to our willingness to exploit others. First, we readily categorize the world into “us versus them”, with those in our ingroups given special treatment and evaluation, and those in our outgroups being treated with indifference (or worse). This happens quickly and easily, with such tendencies being ubiquitous and powerful (see Brewer, 1979, 2003). Second, distance (both literal and psychological) exacerbates these effects. It is much easier to ignore the plight of others when you are far removed from the harm inflicted. Bombers in WWII referred to this as “the morality of altitude.” It is psychologically easier to drop a bomb on an enemy from a great height (or now, from a remote control base in your home country) than it is to drive a bayonet through another person as you stare into his eyes. To most in the West, Bangladesh is well outside of their day-to-day frame of reference for thinking about the world and their own role in it.

Third, we have difficulty understanding the magnitude of the suffering involved. As Slovic (2007) notes, we are often very willing to help one or several persons in need of help, but when a large number of people are in need, we experience psychic numbing. We seem to turn off the empathy and compassion when the problem becomes a large-scale event. These effects are exacerbated when social categorization (“us vs. them” thinking) comes into play. For instance, Americans consider the lives of outgroup members (e.g., Iraqis) to matter far less than the lives of Americans, even when the number of outgroup causalities becomes very large (Pratto & Glasford, 2008).

Despite having a tremendous capacity for love, affection, and empathy, we can also deactivate our empathy quite easily, particularly when the “others” affected are not members of our groups (de Waal, 2009). But simply because this is true does not mean we shouldn’t resist these tendencies in our collective human nature. We can change the world if we are willing to let go of some of our creature comforts and cheap lifestyles. The next time you look at an incredibly cheap pair of shoes, new jacket, or cut of meat, allow that nagging voice in the back of your head to ask “At what cost?” Keep in mind that consumers shape the world in extremely powerful ways. Stopping our participation in immoral consumer practices, whether they affect people in other countries or non-human animals at home, is the first step toward more humane and ethical living. 

References and Suggested Readings:

Ashton, M.C. (2013). Individual differences and personality (2nd edition). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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

Brewer, M.B. (1979).  Ingroup bias in the minimal intergroup situation: A cognitive-motivational analysis.  Psychological Bulletin, 86, 307-324.

Brewer, M.B. (2003). Intergroup relations (2nd ed). Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

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

de Waal, F. B. M. (2009). The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. New York: Harmony Books.

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 

Lee, K., & Ashton, M.C. (2012). The H Factor of Personality: Why Some People Are Manipulative, Self-Entitled, Materialistic, and Exploitive - And Why It Matters For Everyone. Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Pratto, F., & Glasford, D.E. (2008). Ethnocentrism and the value of a human life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1411-1428.

Slovic, P. (2007). “If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide. Judgment and Decision Making, 2, 79-95. 

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