The Situationist

Posts Tagged ‘dehumanization’

Marines Defiling Dead Taliban – Might Recent Neuroscience Shed Light?

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 11, 2012

From The Daily Princetonian:

Failure in the part of the brain that controls social functions could explain why regular people might commit acts of ruthless violence, according to new study by a University research team.

A particular network in the brain is normally activated when we meet someone, empathize with him and think about his experiences.

However, MRI technology showed that when a person encounters someone he deems a drug addict, homeless person or anyone he finds repulsive, parts of this network may fail to activate, creating a pathway to “dehumanized perception” — a failure to acknowledge others’ thoughts and experiences.

According to the study, this process of dehumanizing victims could explain how propoganda portraying Jews as vermin in Nazi Germany and Tutsis of Rwanda as cockroaches led to genocide.

“We all dehumanize other people to some extent,” psychology professor [and Situationist Contributor] Susan Fiske said in an email, noting that it is impossible to delve into the mind of every person we pass.

“That being said, we have shown that people can rehumanize a group they might normally ignore, just by thinking about their preferences, as when a soup kitchen worker thinks about a homeless person’s food preferences.”

Earlier work from the team dealt with social cognition or how individuals perceive the thoughts of others with a study that had individuals think about a day in the life of another person.

The new research attempted to build upon this idea further to include the network in the brain charged with disgust, attention and cognitive control.

To collect their data, the scientists had 119 undergraduates at the University complete judgment and decision-making surveys as they looked at images of individuals such as a firefighter, female college student, elderly man, disabled woman, homeless woman and male drug addict.

This exercise sought to study how the network in the brain involved in social cognition reacted to common emotions shared by participants about the people in the images.

The researchers found that parts of the network in the brain did not activate when participants viewed the images of drug addicts, homeless people and immigrants.

“We all have the capacity to engage in dehumanized perception; it’s not just reserved for serial killers,” Harris said in an email. “There are many routes to dehumanization, and different people may use different routes.”

One such route, according to Harris, may be to avoid thinking about the suffering of others — people who dehumanize homeless people may do this.

Another route could be to view someone as a means to an end. Sports fans may engage in this when they think about trading a favorite player to another team.

Fiske and Harris plan to replicate the study on imprisoned psychopaths, and are continuing to explore the different routes to dehumanized perception.

For a collection of related Situationist posts, see The Interior Situation of Atrocities.

Posted in Conflict, Neuroeconomics, Situationist Contributors | 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 »

The Power of Suggestion

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 12, 2011

In the wake of the massacre in Tucson one of the debates has been over whether a toxic environment might have contributed to the assailant’s behavior.  Social psychology has demonstrated countless times the power of seemingly trivial situatonal forces to encourage hostility and violence.  One of the classics is a 1975 study of the effects of dehumanization.

Here is a 1999 summary of that study by Situationist Contributor Phil Zimbardo.

* * *

My colleague, Albert Bandura, and his students contnued this line of research by extending the basic paradigm here to study the minimal conditions necessary to create dehumanization (Bandura, Underwood, & Fromson, 1975). What they manipulated was only the actors’ perceptioin of their victims–no authority pressures, no induced anonymity. A group of college students expected to help train another group of students from a nearby college by collectively shocking them when they erred on the task.

Just as the study was about to begin, the participants overhead the assistant tell the experimenter one of three phrases–Neutral: “The subjects from the other school are here.” Humanized: “The subjects from the other school are here; they seem ‘nice.'” Dehumanized: “The subjects from the other school are here, they seem like ‘animals.'” Mind you, they never saw those other students, or heard anything directly from them, it is only this label that they had to go on in imaging what they were like.

On trial one, the manipulation failed to have a differential effect on their aggression, and had the researchers ended the study there, we would conclude that dehumanizing labels have no behavioral impact, but as the study wore on, it had a major impact. The boys, who imagined their victims as “animals,” progressively elevated their shock levels over each trial after the first, significantly more than the neutral control. Humanizing labels helped to reduce the aggression significantly below the level of the neutral control.

When the participants were interviewed subsequently about why they behaved as they did, what the researchers found was that the experimental condition enabled them to become morally disengaged, to activate a set of psychological mechanisms that minimized the evil of their deeds, while justifying it in a variety of ways. So a one-word label can create a stereotype of the victim, of the enemy, that also lowers the height of that line between good and evil and enables more good people to cross over and become perpetrators.

* * *

Work cited:  Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 253-269 (pdf here).

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in Classic Experiments, Conflict, Education, Emotions, Morality, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Sarah Palin – Objectification – Reaction – Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 16, 2009

Sarah Palin Convention - By Tom LeGro, NewsHour

Eric Deggans, has a nice article in the Saint Petersburg Times summarizing research by psychologists from Univesity of South Florida, Jamie L. Goldenberg and Nathan A. Heflick.  Their research examined the objectifying effects of thinking about Sarah Palin’s appearance.  Immediately below, you will find excerpts from Deggans’s article.  Below that, you’ll find some reflections from Jamie Goldenberg regarding the negative reaction of some conservative media to her research.

* * *

Two researchers at the University of South Florida have developed a study that suggests . . . that a random group of Republicans and independents asked to focus on Palin’s attractiveness felt less likely to vote for the GOP ticket in last November’s elections.

“The idea is that when you focus on a woman’s appearance, this objectifies her, or turns her into an object in your eyes,” said Jamie L. Goldenberg, an associate professor of psychology at USF and co-author of the study, titled “Objectifying Sarah Palin: Evidence that Objectification Causes Women to be Perceived as Less Competent and Fully Human.” “What we found is these perceptions influenced people’s likelihood of voting.”

In their experiment, Goldenberg and graduate student Nathan A. Heflick assembled a group of 133 undergraduates at the school a month before the election. After noting their characteristics — 27 percent were male, 45 percent were Democrats, 24 percent were Republicans and the rest were independents — they were randomly separated into four groups.

Two groups were asked to write about Palin and two groups were asked to write about actor Angelina Jolie. Within each pair, one group was asked to write their thoughts and feelings about the subject’s appearance, and the other was asked to write about the person. They then asked respondents how they would vote in the coming election.

Goldenberg said that, after factoring out Democratic respondents (who solidly supported Obama), the Republicans and independents asked to write about Palin’s appearance said they were less likely to vote GOP than those who simply considered Palin as a person.

“There was an overall tendency to perceive Sarah Palin as less competent than Angelina Jolie,” said Goldenberg, noting their results fell in line with previous studies indicating that, in high status and political jobs, attractive women were perceived as less competent in ways attractive men and women in other jobs were not.

. . . .Goldenberg said the study, which is to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, may spark more questions than it answers.

“What you can’t tell from this is what did they finally do in the end?” said Joel Cooper, a professor of psychology at Princeton University and editor of the journal publishing Goldenberg and Heflick’s study. “But at the moment they thought of (Palin) as a beauty queen, they were less likely to consider voting for (her) … Knowing that is important for campaigns and how we understand each other.”

Another question: Are female politicians who play down their appearance, like Hillary Clinton, instinctively on to something?

“We wouldn’t say attractiveness is a bad thing,” said Goldenberg. “But having people focus on your appearance and not what you say and who you are, is a bad thing.”

* * *

From Miller-McCune, here are some excerpts from “Peeling Away the Media Reaction to ‘Objectifying Sarah Palin’“:

* * *

Over the few months time we spent on our latest study on the objectification of women in the public eye, our lives as scientists played out normally.

* * *

But then the media got hold of our findings and the subsequent reaction was always surprising – and often appalling.
In his Psychology Today blog, Dr. Stanton Peele reviewed my (Goldenberg, the female member of the research team) appearance on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” with an insulting recapitulation. He mocked my performance, and then he drew attention to my “revealing top” (a round-neck T-shirt, worn on an 85-degree day in Florida and with no foreknowledge that I would be on national television that day).

Dr. Peele’s criticism of my failure to describe the study in a brief sound bite was not atypical of media and Internet blog reactions (although it was all the more surprising since it was written by a “scientist”). But, in Peele’s case, and others, we were silently amused by the irony. Here I was, being objectified and described as incompetent, while the people reporting our findings failed to make the connection to our research findings (some even argued that my appearance invalidated the findings)!

* * *

We believed that, if anything, the study would be spun to be pro-Palin (“she would have been perceived as competent if only the media would have focused on her personality instead of her appearance”). However, the right-wing media reaction was most often defensive and downright hostile. There appeared to be two primary sources of contention. One, people were incensed at the comparison of Palin to a mere actress, Angelina Jolie. And two, people assumed that the study tested and concluded that attractiveness and competence are incompatible — no matter that this was neither tested nor concluded.

In response to the first accusation, the critics failed to comprehend that we are social psychologists with a basic interest in the consequences of objectifying women . . . .

The results also revealed a general tendency for participants in the study to perceive Palin as less competent than Jolie. This is not entirely surprising considering that Jolie was likely evaluated for competence as an actress and Palin as a prospective vice president of the United States. And while the majority of our participants described themselves as Democrats, the study was not designed to shed light on this difference. Nevertheless, Bill O’Reilly harped on this difference . . .and became most frustrated when I, Goldenberg, tried to explain to him that this was not a central component of the study.  [Take a look at the video below (warning: the video is quite low-quality, but it nicely illustrates how some in the media may be unable to "get it.")]

* * *

* * *

* * *

Why is it that the media and Internet bloggers responded to this research with such an uproar?

Here is our take: For one, the nonscientific community was suspicious of our agenda. In a medium where most information serves some political/social/personal agenda, it was simply inconceivable to most people that this research lacked those motivations. In addition, the insensitive comments that were expressed over the Internet (and in hate mail directly sent to us) also demonstrate a type of dehumanization. Viewing us through a television screen or computer monitor (or not at all) most likely functioned to dehumanize us, brazening people to say things that they would never say to a “real” person.

In addition, we were confronted with real-life evidence of the tenacity of people’s efforts to protect their beliefs. This is a common finding in social psychology, that when people have an existing belief — that liberal academics will attack Palin – they will ignore contrary evidence (that this was a scientific study and it could be seen as supporting Palin).

* * *

To read all of Goldenberg’s reflections on her first major encounter with the media, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “The Situation of Objectification,”Hillary Clinton, the Halo Effect, and Women’s Catch-22,” “Legal Academic Backlash – Abstract,” ” Naive Cynicism – Abstract,” ” The Situational Power of Anonymity,” Internet Disinhibition,” and The Social Awkwardness of Online Snubbing.”

Posted in Ideology, Politics, Social Psychology, Video | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Situation of Objectification

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 7, 2009

The Daily Mail’s Fiona Macrae and CNN‘s Elizabeth Landau each had brief articles last week on the fascinating research by Situationist contributor Susan Fiske and her collaborators.   We’ve mashed up excerpts of the two articles below.

* * *

It may seem obvious that men perceive women in sexy bathing suits as objects, but now there’s science to back it up.

New research shows that, in men, the brain areas associated with handling tools and the intention to perform actions light up when viewing images of women in bikinis.

At the same time, the region they use to try to tune into another person’s thoughts and feelings tunes down, brain scans showed.

The research was presented this week by [Situationist Contributor] Susan Fiske . . .  at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The participants, 21 heterosexual male undergraduates at Princeton, took questionnaires to determine whether they harbor “benevolent” sexism, which includes the belief that a woman’s place is in the home, or hostile sexism, a more adversarial viewpoint which includes the belief that women attempt to dominate men.

In the men who scored highest on hostile sexism, the part of the brain associated with analyzing another person’s thoughts, feelings and intentions was inactive while viewing scantily clad women, Fiske said.

Overall, the experiments showed that sexy images lead men to think of women as ‘less than human.’

Fiske said: ‘The only other time we have seen this is when people look at pictures of the homeless or of drug addicts . . . .”  The phenomenon in this case is somewhat different, Fiske said. People have reactions of avoidance toward the homeless and drug addicts, and the opposite for scantily clad women.

“This is just the first study which was focused on the idea that men of a certain age view sex as a highly desirable goal, and if you present them with a provocative woman, then that will tend to prime goal-related responses,” she told CNN.

“They’re not fully conscious responses, and so people don’t know the extent to which they’re being influenced,” Fiske said. “It’s important to recognize the effects.”

A supplementary study on both male and female undergraduates found that men tend to associate bikini-clad women with first-person action verbs such as I “push,” “handle” and “grab” instead of the third-person forms such as she “pushes,” “handles” and “grabs.” They associated fully clothed women, on the other hand, with the third-person forms, indicating these women were perceived as in control of their own actions. The females who took the test did not show this effect, Fiske said.

That goes along with the idea that the man looking at a woman in a bikini sees her as the object of action, Fiske said.

Past studies have also shown that when men view images of highly sexualized women, and then interact with a woman in a separate setting, they are more likely to have sexual words on their minds, she said. They are also more likely to remember the woman’s physical appearance, and sit closer to her — for instance, at a job interview.

Fiske said the effect could spill over into the workplace, with girlie calendars leading men to sexualise their colleagues.

She said: ‘I am not saying there should be censorship but people need to know of the associations people have in their minds.’

* * *

We would add that this research might provide some pause to those employers who encourage or require their employees to dress provocatively (see, for example, the article here).

For related Situationist posts, see “Hillary Clinton, the Halo Effect, and Women’s Catch-22,” “The Color of Sex Appeal,” The Situation of Body Image,” “The Situation of Hair Color,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” Survival of the Cutest,” “Women’s Situational Bind,” Hey Dove! Talk to YOUR parent!,” and “You Shouldn’t Stereotype Stereotypes.”

Posted in Emotions, Implicit Associations, Life, Marketing, Situationist Contributors | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

 
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