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.