Gordon Hodson, Ph.D.

Gordon Hodson Ph.D.

Without Prejudice

Meta-Dehumanization (They Think We Are Animals)

Does feeling dehumanized by another group make us lash out against them?

Posted Mar 21, 2016

When we represent or think about other groups of people as being less human than ourselves we psychologically dehumanize that group. The most commonly researched variant of dehumanization involves conceptualizing others as animal-like. As I have reviewed in previous Psychology Today columns, seeing others as animal-like unleashes a host of negative consequences. Because we over-value humans, and under-value non-human animals, we afford more rights, protection, and concern to those creatures we consider relatively more human (and conversely neglect or harm those we consider relatively less human). Of course, this is a sad statement on how humans regard animals. And it has consequences for attitudes and discrimination toward human outgroups (e.g., those of other races), something I have discussed previously (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/without-prejudice/201206/the-human-... https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/without-prejudice/201307/dehumanizi...).  

But what about meta-dehumanization?  That is, how do we react when we perceive (or learn) that other groups perceive our own group as less-than-human? Do we react with negativity toward that group? Is such a perception unique from related perceptions, such as meta-prejudice (i.e., believing that another group dislikes or disfavours your group)? And finally, if negativity ensues, what can be done to remedy the situation?

In a new investigation led by my former postdoctoral fellow Dr. Nour Kteily we directly tested these questions (see Kteily, Hodson, & Bruneau, 2016). In doing so we both measured and manipulated meta-dehumanization, and collected data from multiple locations around the world that are mired in intergroup conflict (e.g. Americans vs. Muslims; Hungarians vs. Roma; Israelis vs. Palestinians). Of particular interest: how do powerful and dominant groups (e.g. Americans, Hungarians, Israelis) react to being on the receiving end of dehumanizing perceptions?

We found that informing people that they are dehumanized by an outgroup led in turn to greater dehumanization of that outgroup. For example, when learning that Muslims or Arabs dehumanize “Americans”, Americans in turn come to see Muslims or Arabs as less human. This in turn is associated with greater willingness to engage in severe retribution (e.g., torture, drone strikes). That is, believing that another group sees our own group as animal-like unleashes reciprocal dehumanization toward that outgroup, opening the door to negative actions being taken or endorsed against that group. We observed these effects after statistically controlling for how much one dislikes the outgroup in question (i.e., prejudice), and how much one feels disliked by that outgroup (i.e., meta-prejudice). As such, we can confirm that there is something uniquely provocative and retaliatory about being seen as less human by other groups.

If meta-dehumanization can lead to strong negative feelings and actions toward the outgroup, what can be done to limit such tendencies? After all, left to its own devices, such intergroup retaliation would result in a downward spiral of contempt, negativity, and antagonism.

Fortunately there is good news. In our investigation we found that exposing people to information that they were regarded as quite human by others (i.e., meta-humanization) was successful in humanizing the outgroup in turn. Put simply, when we learn that “they” consider “us” human, we reciprocate and see them as human also. 

These findings are as exciting as they are troubling. It is clear that viewing others as less human, or feeling that others see us that way, is associated with negative outcomes and removal of concern for the other. It is also evident that meta-perceptions (i.e., how we perceive others to perceive us) are as important as our beliefs about that group. Indeed, these types of perceptions are systematically related in meaningful ways (see MacInnis & Hodson, 2013).

Along with other findings from my lab, these discoveries suggest several avenues for reducing prejudice, discrimination, and conflict. (1) limit the extent to which we view others as less human, and limit the extent to which we feel dehumanized by others. (2) limit the over-valuing of humans relative to animals. The latter point might be the less obvious of the two, but it is nonetheless critical. The reason that dehumanization unleashes negativity toward supposedly “animal-like” humans is because we consider animals to be of lower value, importance, and concern. The reason that dehumanization is “insulting” and provocative is directly attributable to the low social value placed on animals. As such, “elevating” animals up to the level of humans has positive outcomes not only for those animals, but for people represented as animal-like (Bastian et al., 2012; Costello & Hodson, 2010, 2014a, 2014b; Hodson & Costello, 2012; Hodson, MacInnis, & Costello, 2014).

A note about terminology:

In this paper I have written about humans and animals, recognizing fully that humans are animals. Likewise, in writing about Americans versus Arabs or Muslims I fully recognize that some Americans are Arabs and/or Muslims. These are short-hands used for convenience, but also reflect the dominant way of thinking among participants in such studies.

I have used the term “meta-dehumanization” in a previous column with a different meaning. In that column meta-dehumanization referred to the act of dehumanizing the dehumanizers (for example, witnessing someone behaving barbarically and subsequently considering that person or their group as less human). In the present article I use the term meta-dehumanization in a different manner, that is, to reflect or capture the perception that others dehumanize us. This latter convention directly borrows from the distinction in the literature between stereotypes (e.g., I think Group X is lazy/dirty/clever) and meta-stereotypes (e.g., I think that Group X thinks my group is lazy/dirty/clever).

References and Suggested Readings:

Kteily, N., Hodson, G., & Bruneau, E. (2016). They see us as less than human: Meta-dehumanization predicts intergroup conflict via reciprocal dehumanization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110, 343-370. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000044 (http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/110/3/343/)

Hodson, G. & MacInnis, C.C., & Costello, K. (2014).  (Over)Valuing “humanness” as an aggravator of intergroup prejudices and discrimination. In P.G. Bain, J. Vaes, & J.-Ph. Leyens (Eds.), Humanness and dehumanization (pp. 86-110). London: Psychology Press.

Hodson, G., Kteily, N.S., & Hoffarth, M. R. (2014). Of filthy pigs and subhuman mongrels: Dehumanization, disgust, and intergroup prejudice. TPM: Testing Psychometrics Methodology in Applied Psychology, 21, 267-284.  DOI: 10.4473/TPM21.3.3

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (2014b). Lay beliefs about the causes of and solutions to dehumanization and prejudice: Do non-experts recognize the role of human-animal relations? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 44, 278-288. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12221

Costello, K., & Hodson, G. (2014a). Explaining dehumanization among children: The interspecies model of prejudice. British Journal of Social Psychology, 53, 175-197. DOI:10.1111/bjso.12016

MacInnis, C.C., & Hodson, G. (2012). “Where the rubber hits the road” en route to intergroup harmony: Examining contact intentions and contact behavior under meta-stereotype threat. British Journal of Social Psychology, 51, 363-373. DOI:10.1111/j.2044-8309.2010.02014.x

MacInnis, C.C., & Hodson, G. (2013). Expecting racial outgroups to view “us” as biased: A social projection explanation of Whites’ bias meta-stereotypes. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 16, 545-559. DOI: 10.1177/1368430212463454

Bastian, B, Costello, K., Loughnan, S., & Hodson, G. (2012). When closing the human-animal divide expands moral concern: The importance of framing. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 421-429. DOI: 10.1177/1948550611425106

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

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