Dehumanization and the Brain

Here’s a great article, via the Situationist:

A Brain’s Failure to Appreciate Others May Perpetuate Atrocities.

No, it’s not about how Autistic people are responsible for genocide. Although the actual published journal article is behind a paywall, from what I can tell the researchers (including Susan Fiske, on whom I have a huge intellectual crush) are not really talking about autism at all but rather the general population.

The study showed that Princeton undergraduates (that is, not a representative sample of the whole population, but also not a sample of only people with a particular mental disability) systematically shut off the social processing centers of their brains (the centers generally associated with empathy and social reasoning) when looking at or thinking about people whom they considered disgusting and less-than-human: people thought to be homeless, addicted to drugs, immigrants, or poor. The social areas lit up normally when participants looked at pictures of other individuals.

This suggests that bias isn’t just about thinking some people are bad, but in at least some situations it’s about thinking of people as not human. This, of course, is something that activists have been pointing out for a long time, but it’s cool to see that their phenomenological, introspective description of what’s happening matches up pretty closely with the neuropsychological data (see also the same researchers’ findings that men who scored high on “hostile sexism” turned off the social centers of their brain while looking at scantily clad women).

What’s more, when participants looked at pictures of dehumanized individuals, their brains showed activity in the areas known to govern disgust, attention, and cognitive control. The researchers suggested that disgust may play a role in the shutdown of the “social” areas of the participants’ brains.

The fact that disgust is part of the equation here is particularly interesting, because it suggests (in my mind) that the underlying cognitive process evolved as a response to contagious disease or vermin. Although most people at least intellectually understand that people with contagious diseases are still people, societies historically have shunned individuals who appear to have a life-threatening contagious disease (most notably people with leprosy), to prevent the disease from spreading throughout the population. Of course, doing this was to some extent against human nature because we naturally want to be kind to others who are suffering, so it was necessary to develop a way for disgust to trump empathy.

The discovery of sanitation has made this tactic totally unnecessary (although people perceived as having a life-threatening contagious illness are still frequently subjected to serious discrimination), but the same mechanism is still being applied to people who are considered unworthy of empathy for some other reason, particularly outsiders (the immigrants), people who are perceived as “diseased” (the substance abusers and to some extent homeless people, who are widely presumed to have some sort of mental illness), and people dealing with unjust situations that are perceived as intractable and not worth trying to fix (poor persons).

The possibility that people are more likely to dehumanize a person when they associate the person with the idea of disease has important disability and human rights implications. For example, it may explain why promoting “medical” explanations of mental disability can paradoxically increase stigma while decreasing blame. It explains why, whenever people try to distinguish “high-functioning” Autistic advocates from the “really autistic” people who are not-quite-human and need to be cured, they invariably end up talking about gross things the person does, like playing with poop.

At the risk of over-interpreting this study, I’d say it supports the arguments of activists who object to medicalizing terminology that characterizes a long-term disability as a “disease,” “disorder,” “illness,” or “epidemic,” especially when the “disease” in question is considered severe and “incurable.” While medicalizing terms may discourage society from blaming the disabled individual, the individual may also be considered less than human and thus less deserving of human rights such as self-determination, bodily autonomy, and full participation in the community.

It would also be interesting to see further research on exactly when this dehumanization response occurs and when it doesn’t, so that we can think of ways to prevent it. I suspect that people will show less of a dehumanizing response when the “disease” is perceived as either mild (such as the flu), presently curable (such as malaria), or the result of an injury and not a disease.┬áThis coincides with findings that people are more likely to empathize with individuals with mental illness if they are told that the person’s distress is caused by adverse life situations (that is, an “injury” model rather than a “disease” model). Moreover, one of the pictures used in the present study was of a “disabled” woman (they don’t say what the woman’s disability was), and this was apparently not a picture that elicited a dehumanizing response. My guess, without seeing the article, is that this woman’s disability appeared to have been caused by an injury (for example, a person who looks “normal” except that she is using a wheelchair) rather than a disease.

By analogy, would people be more likely to, say, view homeless individuals as fully human if they were told that homelessness is often a temporary life situation and that many people who experience homelessness ultimately find housing and have stable, fulfilling lives? Would people be less likely to dehumanize poor people if they were told that poverty arises from external social forces that can be changed? Or if they saw poverty as an injury caused by some sort of injustice?

I really like this sort of research. Understanding how people think about marginalized groups is a great step toward getting to think about them better. And I’m not self-deluded enough to think that anyone can truly understand how people think without doing some actually good research on the topic.

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Filed under Being Weird, Disabilities, Experimental Psychology, Health Care

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