How Our Perceptions of Victims’ Humanity Increases Some Violence, But Not All

Dehumanization is the process through which we come to believe that a person cannot think, feel, and behave intentionally, nor experience right and wrong. A substantial body of literature from the social sciences posits that dehumanization may be the psychological rationale motivating acts of mass violence, such as the Holocaust and Las Vegas shootings; if someone is not ‘human’, then they cannot feel pain. This disassociation enables them to inflict harm on others with shocking ease.

Until recently, psychologists have concentrated on the presumption that dehumanizing victims makes harm easier. This understanding has informed anti-violence and peace-building initiatives, such as South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Chicago’s Cook County’s Restorative Justice Community Court. These interventions facilitate non-violence by encouraging humanization between people and groups with a history of harm. But what if dehumanization doesn’t affect all violence uniformly?

A series of psychological studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicate that the degree to which we view others as human does not evenly affect our willingness to harm them. In “Dehumanization Increases Instrumental Violence, But Not Moral Violence,” Tage Rai, Piercarlo Valdesolo, and Jesse Graham demonstrate how ‘human’ aggressors perceptions of victims influence moral and instrumental violence differently. While a victim’s moral infraction inspires moral violence, instrumental violence is an impulsive reaction, or driven by an unrelated goal. Rai and colleagues theorize that it may be easier to commit moral violence if the victim is humanized because aggressors want victims to feel the punishment is deserved. Though the authors hypothesize a relationship between humanization and moral violence, their studies specifically support a link between dehumanization and instrumental violence.

Across the five experiments, participants imagined scenarios contrasting instrumental and moral violence. In one study, participants were asked to imagine two victims of US drone strikes: Iraqi civilians and terrorists. Because terrorism is widely considered a moral infraction, violence against terrorists was operationalized as ‘morally motivated,’ while civilian death represented ‘instrumental violence.’ The authors compared reactions to terrorists and civilians and discovered that support for the strikes differed based on the victim’s identity and perceived humanity. When the victims were dehumanized civilians, participants were more likely to support the strikes. The authors suspect this is because respondents viewed civilian deaths as collateral damage, a necessary evil to end the war.

In a second study, participants indicated that when paid to break someone’s thumbs (financially motivated instrumental violence), they were more likely to harm a ‘dehumanized stranger’ than a ‘humanized man’ who sold girls into prostitution. The relationship between dehumanization and instrumental violence was robust throughout the studies. In four out of five experiments, dehumanization went hand-in-hand with increased instrumental violence. The authors found that participants were more likely to endorse instrumental violence when they did not attribute thoughts, feelings, and intentionality—hallmarks of humanity—to the victims. In contrast, the prediction that humanization would increase moral violence was weakly and inconsistently supported.

Taken together, these studies show that dehumanizing victims uniquely affects different types of violence. Specifically, dehumanizing victims increases instrumental violence. The evidence is still inconclusive on whether humanization increases moral violence, but researchers and policy-makers should take greater care in examining the type of violence their policies target. Failure to consider the relationship between perceived humanity and proclivity to harm could engender unintended consequences on policies that encompass violence, such as criminal justice reform and anti-terrorism tactics.

Article Source: Rai, Tage S., Jesse Graham and Piercarlo Valdesolo. “Dehumanization Increases Instrumental Violence, But Not Moral Violence.The National Academy of Sciences Vol. 114, Issue 32. (2017): 8511–8516.

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Mika Armenta

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