Understanding What Makes Others Human—Even If They’re Not

Many of us assign human characteristics to non-human entities, whether or not we’re conscious of it: We talk to our plants, name our cars, and try to coax our computers into processing more quickly. Understanding how and why we do this can have important consequences for understanding our tendencies to empathize with—or, conversely, dehumanize—other people, say a team of psychological scientists from Harvard University and the University of Chicago.
In Current Directions in Psychological Science, the team describes a three-pronged theory that may help explain anthropomorphism (the lending of human traits onto non-human agents). Not surprisingly, we assign human attributes to entities that resemble us at least to some degree in physical appearance or movement. People who lack social connection with other people may find that connection with inanimate objects, such as technological gadgets (the authors site as an example a British woman who, fearing rejection from other people, fell in love with a hi-fi system she named “Jake”). A lack of predictability or control might also lead us to assign human traits to non-human entities—a practice that may be at work in naming hurricanes.
The inverse of this theory may be behind our tendency to dehumanize, or fail to attribute basic features of personhood, to other people, the scientists write. Hence, we’re more likely to dehumanize others who are not so similar to us. Perhaps more surprising, research has backed up the idea that people who are more socially connected might be more apt to dehumanize others:

Participants in one experiment who were experimentally induced to feel socially connected were more likely to deny humanlike mental states to others and to endorse dehumanizing violence. … Historical examples of dehumanization, such as ongoing violence between the Palestinians and Israelis, the Nazis’ persecution of Jews during the Holocaust, and torture at Abu-Ghraib prison in Iraq, also suggest that perpetrators of dehumanization are often members of a socially cohesive in-group acting against an out-group. Social connection may have many benefits for a person’s own health and well-being but may have unfortunate consequences for intergroup relations by enabling dehumanization.

Experiments have shown that being in a position of power—as opposed to lacking control—increased the tendency to objectify subordinates and treat them as a means to one’s own end, rather than focusing on their innate human qualities. Bringing together different strands of research on anthropomorphism and dehumanization may have broad implications, in helping us to better understand why we treat others as we do.

Category: Findings


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