I have been studying Bruneau’s work on the universal human tendency to dehumanize “the other". He builds on in-group bias research in relation to various forms of dehumanization (IEA PARIS, 2016). He developed studies on what he calls" blatant dehumanization" where he asks subject, point blank, how developed do you think such-and-such group is? They rate it on a scale that aligns with the “Ascent of Man" image of apes morphing into modern humans.

There is an “area/region of dehumanization" in the brain that lights up when people judged groups as less evolved. It also lights up when people perceive soldiers as more suitable target in video games. I wonder if this is why so much of our popular entertainment targets zombies these days - perhaps these shows are popular because we find it more acceptable to attack something subhuman.


Image of Zombie, CC0 Public Domain, via Pixabay

It is something to be concerned about. Especially since people act on these worldviews. He found that people willing to blatantly dehumanize “the other" support more hostile and aggressive policies towards other countries if they see them as an “other" (IEA PARIS, 2016). They support more hostile immigration policies. I also wonder if - in the case of war or genocide - they view certain people as less than human and thus permit themselves to kill them, or participate in their deaths.

I learned that this lack of empathy is not just an intergroup problem - people in certain circumstances apparently dehumanize "the other" right in front of them. It has recently been demonstrated that positions of power damage people’s brains (“Power Causes Brain Damage - The Atlantic," 2017). The begin to lose the ability to detect detail, and people actually start to look the same to them - they see people more in terms of stereotypes than how they actually appear.

This makes me reflect on the many times when I have objected to stereotypes in movies, and received the rebuttal that “it’s only entertainment". It seems that dehumanizing the other goes deeper than that. Fortunately, there are things people can do to escape the “hubris syndrome" that causes people to start dehumanizing when they obtain a position of power: according to David Owens, who coined the term (Owen, 2008), a sense of humor and cynicism are the best defenses.

Hmmmn . that makes me feel a little better.


Citations:

IEA PARIS. (2016). Emile Bruneau (MIT): “Intergroup empathy and dehumanizations (...)." Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1L6y15Il81s

Owen, D. (2008). In sickness and in power: illness in heads of government during the last 100 years. Westport, Conn.: Praeger.

Power Causes Brain Damage - The Atlantic. (Juy/Aug 2017). Retrieved July 8, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/power-causes-brain-damage/528711/