Notpeople and blobfish: How do we perceive humanness?

How do we know who or what is human? This may seem like a stupid question when talking about a biologically well-documented species that is also (probably) your own. We have criteria for distinguishing Homo sapiens from other animals or objects. Concepts such as “human rights”, “human dignity” and “humane treatment” rely on this distinction. What may surprise you is how little our brains sometimes care about species, or even whether something is alive or not, in our daily dealings with our environment. In many situations, belonging to the human race is not enough, and sometimes not even necessary, for us to treat something or someone as human.

When things feel like people

The slippery slope from object to animal to person goes both ways. On the one hand, we often cannot help thinking that animals or even lifeless objects have intentions, thoughts, and character traits that we really know to be exclusively human, a phenomenon known as anthropomorphism. Most of us probably know the irrational but nagging suspicion that our computer/printer/dish washer is deliberately malfunctioning in order to drive us crazy. We probably all know people who pay more attention to their pets than to their parents. We give hurricanes human names and enjoy watching movies about sentient robots. Unsurprisingly, studies show that perceiving and interacting with objects as if they were people activates some of the same brain areas as real social interaction, although to a lesser degree. Reasons for why our mind “humanizes” things and animals are varied: Firstly, objects and animals with superficially human-looking features or behaviours can automatically trigger similar processes of face and emotion recognition as human ones, as is evident from pop culture phenomena like grumpy cat, blobfish, or short films like Luxo Jr.

Anthropomorphism feels good!

Even more interestingly, in cases where this superficial “humanness” is not present, as in hurricanes or even just the general unpredictability of life, we conjure up “wrathful weather”, “fate” or “god” simply to make the chaotic universe seem more predictable. A series of studies on this topic shows that the more unpredictable a gadget or computer, the more likely participants were to rate it as “having a mind of its own”, especially when they were being paid to correctly predict the gadget’s next action and therefore wanted it to be more predictable. This already points to a very interesting aspect of how we process humanness (or not):

It is not only the traits of the thing/animal/person we are looking at that determine how we will perceive it, but also our own motivations.

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“Evil is when you treat people as things” (Terry Pratchett)

The flip side of our brains’ flexibility with regard to humanness can be much more sinister than the gloomy face of a blobfish. Under certain circumstances, we start seeing even other Homo sapiens as fundamentally different and less than human. We then fail to infer their state of mind and empathize, things we usually do immediately and automatically when faced with someone we see as an equal.

This difference in reaction is even detectable with brain imaging technology: Several brain areas show altered activations when faced with photos of people from social groups that participants viewed in a dehumanized way, such as homeless people or drug addicts. Whereas the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), an area associated with social cognition and cognitive empathy, is activated more strongly in response to respected and liked outgroups (e. g. Olympic athletes or elderly people) than to despised outgroups, activation in the amygdala and insular cortex is stronger for the latter, a pattern similar to a disgust reaction.

The mPFC of heterosexual men also reacts less strongly to sexualized images of women, the more sexist their attitude towards women is. Similar patterns are also observable when participants view videos of people from their own vs. another ethnic group being subjected to light pain, suggesting that dehumanization may just be an extreme version of ingroup-outgroup thinking. Dehumanization can explain why in wars and genocides, as well as the less publicized crimes happening all over the world, people who usually have a moral compass regarding the treatment of others suddenly have no qualms about hurting another person, no matter how innocent or defenceless. A long list of psychological studies shows that dehumanizing others in our minds makes us more ready to exclude and even torture them. After all, if they are not really people, mistreating them is not really wrong, is it? (Of course, animal rights activists would argue that non-human animals also deserve to be treated well, but this is a question for another post.)

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Dehumanization can also feel good!

So how exactly do we know whether what we see is human or not? One review of the existing literature comes to the conclusion that we perceive others as human if we can see characteristics in them that are both uniquely and typically human. A uniquely human trait could be the capacity for complex thought and emotion that we believe separates us from other animals, whereas traits such as curiosity, warmth and vivacity are regarded as more deeply, typically human, even if we believe other animals to have them as well. If we perceive a person or group as lacking in either of these areas, they will seem not quite human to us. Think of racist propaganda, portraying ethnic “others” as primitive and animal-like (i. e. lacking uniquely human traits), or the movie cliché of the highly sophisticated but unfeeling villain (who lacks typical human traits). Needless to say that these perceptions are usually inaccurate. Why, then, do these dehumanizing notions persist? Obviously, false information and distorted perception often play a role. If everything you have ever heard about a certain social group was highly biased and your own experience with them limited, then it is no surprise if you develop a dehumanized perception of and show inhumane behaviour towards them.

However, there may be an even more worrying reason for dehumanized perception of people, one that actually sets in after they have already been treated inhumanely. There is a long tradition of theories around dehumanization and deindividuation as a mechanism for reducing cognitive dissonance and making ourselves feel better about bad things done by us or by our ingroup. An experiment from 2006 found that after being reminded of British and US American colonial crimes against Native Americans and Australians, white British and American participants were less likely to attribute human qualities to members of the victimized groups. There are not many experimental studies yet that support this, but the findings indicate that dehumanizing the victims of our own or our country’s actions can potentially assuage feelings of wrongness and guilt. This even works for actions like exploiting and using people for personal profit in a computer game.

So, how to re-humanize?

The most obvious way to prevent dehumanization is good old personal contact. Being as open as possible and getting to know people from other social and ethnic groups reduces not only prejudice, but also anxiety with regard to them, and increases intergroup empathy. This leads me to my final question: What if it is already too late? What if we are already perceiving a person or group in a dehumanizing way? It takes effort to try to empathize with somebody we do not acknowledge as a full human being. However, this is exactly what needs to happen for peaceful coexistence.

And because we are human, we can remind ourselves of this and make the effort. After all, some soldiers in World War One crossed trenches to celebrate Christmas with the enemy, even after years of war and hateful propaganda. If they were able to do it, then surely we are.

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