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.
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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.
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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
- “The Tragedy in Tucson: What Do You Think?,” (and the many links contained therein),
- “Racial bias clouds ability to feel others’ pain,”
- “Racism Meets Groupism and Teamism,”
- “It’s Hard to Step into Someone Else’s Shoes,”
- “The Need for a Situationist Morality,”
- “The Toll of Discrimination on Black Women,”
- “The Devil You Know . . .,”
- “The Situation of Objectification,”
- “The Situational Power of Anonymity,”
- “New Study Looks at the Roots of Empathy,”
- “Afraid of Knowing Ourselves,”
- “Jennifer Eberhardt’s “Policing Racial Bias” – Video,”
- “Why Race May Influence Us Even When We “Know” It Doesn’t,” and
- “Hoyas, Hos, & Gangstas.”