The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘atrocities’

The Interior Situation of Atrocities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 10, 2012

From People’s World (an article summarizing recent research by Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske):

Why do people commit atrocities? What is responsible for brutality and the cold blooded murder of innocents carried out by Nazis, the Hutu in Rwanda, or the United States against the Vietnamese people and more recently much of the civilian population of Iraq? Some scientists believe they have found the answer.

ScienceDaily reports (“Brain’s Failure to Appreciate Others May Permit Human Atrocities,” 12-14-2011) that the part of the brain responsible for social interaction with others may malfunction resulting in callousness leading to inhumane actions towards others. Scientists at Duke and Princeton have hypothesized, in a recent study, that this brain area can “disengage” when people encounter others they think are “disgusting” and the resulting violence perpetrated against them is due to thinking these objectified others have no “thoughts and feelings.”

The study, according to ScienceDaily, considers this a “shortcoming” which could account for the genocide and torture of other peoples. Examples of this kind of objectification can be seen in the calling of Jews “vermin” by the Nazis, the Tutsi “cockroaches” by the Hutu, and the American habit of calling others “gooks” (as well as other unflattering terms).

Lasana Harris (Duke) says, “When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds [do they have more than one?] Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human.” I wonder about this? What is meant by fully human? Surely the Hutu, for example, who had lived with the Tutsi for centuries, did not really fail to infer that they had “minds.”

Practicing something called “social neuroscience” which seems to consist of showing different people pictures while they are undergoing an MRI and then drawing conclusions from which areas of the brain do or do not “light up” when asked questions about these pictures, the scientists conducting this study discovered that an area of the brain dealing with “social cognition”– i.e., feelings, thoughts, empathy, etc., “failed to engage” when pictures of homeless people, drug addicts, and others “low on the social ladder” were shown.

Susan Fiske (Princeton) remarked, “We need to think about other people’s experience. It’s what makes them fully human to us.” ScienceDaily adds the researchers were struck by the fact that “people will easily ascribe social cognition– a belief in an internal life such as emotions– to animals and cars, but will avoid making eye contact with the homeless panhandler in the subway.”

More.

Related Situationist posts:

Image from Flickr.

Posted in Altruism, Conflict, Ideology, Implicit Associations, Neuroscience, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Dehumanized Situation of Atrocities

Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 17, 2011

From Duke Today, a story about recent research by Situationist Contributor Susan Fiske:

A father in Louisiana bludgeoned and beheaded his disabled 7-year-old son last August because he no longer wanted to care for the boy.

For most people, such a heinous act is unconscionable.

But it may be that a person can become callous enough to commit human atrocities because of a failure in the part of the brain that’s critical for social interaction. A new study by researchers at Duke University and Princeton University suggests this function may disengage when people encounter others they consider disgusting, thus “dehumanizing” their victims by failing to acknowledge they have thoughts and feelings.

This shortcoming also may help explain how propaganda depicting Tutsi in Rwanda as cockroaches and Hitler’s classification of Jews in Nazi Germany as vermin contributed to torture and genocide, the study said.

“When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds. Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human,” said lead author Lasana Harris, an assistant professor in Duke University’s Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Harris co-authored the study with Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Social neuroscience has shown through MRI studies that people normally activate a network in the brain related to social cognition — thoughts, feelings, empathy, for example — when viewing pictures of others or thinking about their thoughts.  But when participants in this study were asked to consider images of people they considered drug addicts, homeless people, and others they deemed low on the social ladder, parts of this network failed to engage.

What’s especially striking, the researchers said, is that people will easily ascribe social cognition — a belief in an internal life such as emotions — to animals and cars, but will avoid making eye contact with the homeless panhandler in the subway.

“We need to think about other people’s experience,” Fiske said. “It’s what makes them fully human to us.”

The duo’s previous research suggested that a lack of social cognition can be linked to not acknowledging the mind of other people when imagining a day in their life, and rating them differently on traits that we think differentiate humans from everything else.

This latest study expands on that earlier work to show that these traits correlate with activation in brain regions beyond the social cognition network. These areas include those brain areas involved in disgust, attention and cognitive control.

The result is what the researchers call “dehumanized perception,” or failing to consider someone else’s mind. Such a lack of empathy toward others can also help explain why some members of society are sometimes dehumanized, they said.

For this latest study, 119 undergraduates from Princeton completed judgment and decision-making surveys as they viewed images of people. The researchers sought to examine the students’ responses to common emotions triggered by images such as:

– a female college student and male American firefighter (pride);
— a business woman and rich man (envy);
— an elderly man and disabled woman (pity);
— a female homeless person and male drug addict (disgust).

After imagining a day in the life of the people in the images, participants next rated the same person on various dimensions. They rated characteristics including the warmth, competence, similarity, familiarity, responsibility of the person for his/her situation, control of the person over their situation, intelligence, complex emotionality, self-awareness, ups-and-downs in life, and typical humanity.

Participants then went into the MRI scanner and simply looked at pictures of people.

The study found that the neural network involved in social interaction failed to respond to images of drug addicts, the homeless, immigrants and poor people, replicating earlier results.

“These results suggest multiple roots to dehumanization,” Harris said. “This suggests that dehumanization is a complex phenomenon, and future research is necessary to more accurately specify this complexity.”

The sample’s mean age was 20, with 62 female participants. The ethnic composition of the Princeton students who participated in the study was 68 white, 19 Asian, 12 of mixed descent, and 6 black, with the remainder not reporting.

The study, “Dehumanized Perception: A Psychological Means to Facilitate Atrocities, Torture, and Genocide?” appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Psychology.

Image from Flickr.

Related Situationist posts:

Susan Fiske’s New Book

Posted in Abstracts, Conflict, Evolutionary Psychology, Morality, Neuroeconomics, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

 
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