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In this famous image from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Josef Blösche (far right) and other Nazi soldiers gather up innocent civilians, including children, for persecution.

Dehumanization or dehumanisation describes the denial of "humanness" to other people. It is theorized to take on two forms: animalistic dehumanization, which is employed on a largely intergroup basis, and mechanistic dehumanization, which is employed on a largely interpersonal basis.[1] Dehumanization can occur discursively (e.g., idiomatic language that likens certain human beings to non-human animals, verbal abuse, erasing one's voice from discourse), symbolically (e.g., imagery), or physically (e.g., chattel slavery, physical abuse, refusing eye contact). Dehumanization often ignores the target's individuality (i.e., the creative and interesting aspects of their personality) and prevents one from showing compassion towards stigmatized groups.[citation needed]

Dehumanization may be carried out by a social institution (such as a state, school, or family), interpersonally, or even within the self. Dehumanization can be unintentional, especially on the part of individuals, as with some types of de facto racism. State-organized dehumanization has historically been directed against perceived political, racial, ethnic, national, or religious minority groups. Other minoritized and marginalized individuals and groups (based on sexual orientation, gender, disability, class, or some other organizing principle) are also susceptible to various forms of dehumanization. The concept of dehumanization has received empirical attention in the psychological literature.[2][3] It is conceptually related to infrahumanization,[4] delegitimization,[5] moral exclusion,[6] and objectification.[7] Dehumanization occurs across several domains; is facilitated by status, power, and social connection; and results in behaviors like exclusion, violence, and support for violence against others.

PHD David Livingstone Smith, director and founder of The Human Nature Project at the University of New England argues that historically, human beings have been dehumanizing one another for thousands of years.[8]


In Herbert Kelman's work on dehumanization, humanness has two features: "identity" (i.e., a perception of the person "as an individual, independent and distinguishable from others, capable of making choices") and "community" (i.e., a perception of the person as "part of an interconnected network of individuals who care for each other"). When a target's agency and community embeddedness are denied, they no longer elicit compassion or other moral responses, and may suffer violence as a result.[9]

Animalistic versus mechanistic

In Nick Haslam's review of dehumanization, he differentiates between uniquely human (UH) characteristics, which distinguish humans from other animals, and human nature (HN), characteristics that are typical of or central to human beings. His model suggests that different types of dehumanization arise from the denial of one sense of humanness or the other. Language, higher order cognition, refined emotions, civility, and morality are uniquely human characteristics (i.e., traits humans have that non-human animals do not). Cognitive flexibility, emotionality, vital agency, and warmth are central to human nature. Characteristics of human nature are perceived to be widely shared among groups (i.e., every human has these traits), while uniquely human characteristics (e.g., civility, morality) are thought to vary between groups.[1]

According to Haslam, the animalistic form of dehumanization occurs when uniquely human characteristics (e.g., refinement, moral sensibility) are denied to an outgroup. People that suffer animalistic dehumanization are seen as amoral, unintelligent, and lacking self-control, and they are likened to animals. This has happened with Black Americans in the United States, Jews during The Holocaust, and the Tutsi ethnic group during the Rwandan Genocide. While usually employed on an intergroup basis, animalistic dehumanization can occur on an interpersonal basis as well.

The mechanistic form occurs when features of human nature (e.g., cognitive flexibility, warmth, agency) are denied to targets. Targets of mechanistic dehumanization are seen as cold, rigid, interchangeable, lacking agency, and likened to machines or objects. Mechanistic dehumanization is usually employed on an interpersonal basis (e.g., when a person is seen as a means to another's end).[1]

Related psychological processes

Several lines of psychological research relate to the concept of dehumanization. Infrahumanization suggests that individuals think of and treat outgroup members as "less human" and more like animals;[4] while Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeld uses the term pseudo-speciation, a term that he borrowed from the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, to imply that the dehumanized person or persons are being regarded as not members of the human species.[10] Specifically, individuals associate secondary emotions (which are seen as uniquely human) more with the ingroup than with the outgroup. Primary emotions (those that are experienced by all sentient beings, both humans and other animals) and are found to be more associated with the outgroup.[4] Dehumanization is intrinsically connected with violence(cite?). For the most part, one cannot do serious injury to another without first dehumanizing him or her in one’s mind(cite?) . Military training is, among other things, a systematic desensitization and dehumanization of the other, and servicemen and women find it psychologically necessary to refer to the enemy contemptuously with animal or other non-human names. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has shown that without such desensitization it would be difficult, if not impossible for men to kill, even in combat, even under threat to their own lives.[11]

Delegitimization is the "categorization of groups into extreme negative social categories which are excluded from human groups that are considered as acting within the limits of acceptable norms and/or values."[5]

Moral exclusion occurs when outgroups are subject to a different set of moral values, rules, and fairness than are used in social relations with ingroup members.[6] When individuals dehumanize others, they no longer experience distress when they treat them poorly. Moral exclusion is used to explain extreme behaviors like genocide, harsh immigration policies, and eugenics, but can also happen on a more regular, everyday discriminatory level. In laboratory studies, people who are portrayed as lacking human qualities have been found to be treated in a particularly harsh and violent manner.[12][13][14]

Martha Nussbaum (1999) identified seven components of objectification: "instrumentality", "ownership", "denial of autonomy", "inertness", "fungibility", "violability", and "denial of subjectivity".[7]

In Psychology higher-order cognitive processes like social cognition may occur between a human and human, or human and non-human, human and object. The assigning that occurs in social cognition suggests a non-human target can have projected internal life, or conscious emotional and cognitive experiences. Mental states projected onto objects and non-human forms of life can occur without intention. Studies by Heberlein, Adolphs, Tranel & Damasio, Heberlein AS, Adolphs R, Tranel D, Damasio H. Cortical regions for judgments of emotions and personality traits from point-light walkers explore the constants of biological motion perception within areas of the human brain, where participants would infer intent among objects which do not have any emotion or cognitions.[15] It is also possible for subjects to anthropomorphize a spectrum of inanimate objects and non-human life forms.[16] In children there is a common pattern of projecting the imaginary other, both humanlike and not, and a child is able to interact with the imaginary other without much effort as if the projected other exists. With the ease of anthropomorphic projection, children's lack of social cognition unto human counterparts is surprising. Dehumanized perception often means a cognitive bias experienced through lack of consideration for thoughts, feelings, and general mental contents of a social target's cognition. This dehumanized perception can occur when the target has elicited disgust or further negative responses when in contact with the dehumanizing subject. Humans seen as having certain lower social standings such as people suffering from addictions and homeless persons are often perceived as being low in cognitive warmth and low in social competency reliability. This often elicits more frequent disgust compared to certain higher social standings when projected cognitions by the dehumanizing subject.[17] Humans can suddenly consider the mental cognitions of those persons who experience emotions of a social variety, linking in-groups of positive social figures to pride, connecting in-groups of wealthy and the upper class feelings of envy, and experiencing pity towards in-groups of the disabled and the elderly. Through a study by Fiske, Cuddy, & Glick in 2007, a stereotype content model showed that social targets such as the elderly and wealthy were trustworthy, friendly, and of capable ability due to perceived competence and warmth. However, in-groups of the disabled, poor, persons with addictions, and immigrants were recorded as disgust-inducing due to projected low warmth and incompetence.[18]

Dehumanized perception has been indicated to occur when a subject experiences low frequencies of activation within their social cognition neural network.[19] This includes areas of neural networking such as the superior temporal sulcus and the medial prefrontal cortex.[20] A study by Frith & Frith in 2001 suggests the criticality of social interaction within a neural network has tendencies for subjects to dehumanize those seen as disgust-inducing leading to social disengagement.[21] Tasks involving social cognition typically activate the neural network responsible for subjective projections of disgust-inducing perceptions and patterns of dehumanization. "Besides manipulations of target persons, manipulations of social goals validate this prediction: Inferring preference, a mental-state inference, significantly increases MPFC and STS activity to these otherwise dehumanized targets."[22] A 2007 study by Harris, McClure, van den Bos, Cohen & Fiske suggest a subject's mental reliability towards dehumanizing social cognition due to the decrease of neural activity towards the projected target, replicating across stimuli and contexts.[23]

Facilitating factors

While social distance from the outgroup target is a necessary condition for dehumanization, some research suggests that it is not sufficient. Psychological research has identified high status, power, and social connection as additional factors that influence whether dehumanization will occur. If being an outgroup member was all that was required to be dehumanized, dehumanization would be far more prevalent. However, only[citation needed] members of high status groups associate humanity more with ingroup than the outgroup. Members of low status groups exhibit no differences in associations with humanity. Having high status makes one more likely to dehumanize others.[24] Low status groups are more associated with human nature traits (warmth, emotionality) than uniquely human traits, implying that they are closer to animals than humans because these traits are typical of humans but can be seen in other species.[25] In addition, another line of work found that individuals in a position of power were more likely to objectify their subordinates, treating them as a means to one's own end rather than focusing on their essentially human qualities.[26] Finally, social connection, thinking about a close other or being in the actual presence of a close other, enables dehumanization by reducing attribution of human mental states, increasing support for treating targets like animals, and increasing willingness to endorse harsh interrogation tactics.[27] This is surprising because social connection has documented benefits for personal health and well-being but appears to impair intergroup relations.

Neuroimaging studies have discovered that the medial prefrontal cortex—a brain region distinctively involved in attributing mental states to others—shows diminished activation to extremely dehumanized targets (i.e., those rated, according to the stereotype content model, as low-warmth and low-competence, such as drug addicts or homeless people).[28][29]

Race and ethnicity

Dehumanization often occurs as a result of conflict in an intergroup context. Ethnic and racial others are often represented as animals in popular culture and scholarship. There is evidence that this representation persists in the American context with Black Americans implicitly associated with apes. To the extent that an individual has this dehumanizing implicit association, they are more likely to support violence against Black Americans (e.g., jury decisions to execute defendants).[30] Historically, dehumanization is frequently connected to genocidal conflicts in that ideologies before and during the conflict link victims to rodents/vermin.[1] Immigrants are also dehumanized in this manner.[31]


Fredrickson and Roberts argued that the sexual objectification of women extends beyond pornography (which emphasizes women's bodies over their uniquely human mental and emotional characteristics) to society generally. There is a normative emphasis on female appearance that causes women to take a third-person perspective on their bodies.[32] The psychological distance women may feel from their bodies might cause them to dehumanize themselves. Some research has indicated that women and men exhibit a "sexual body part recognition bias", in which women's sexual body parts are better recognized when presented in isolation than in the context of their entire bodies, whereas men's sexual body parts are better recognized in the context of their entire bodies than in isolation.[33] Men who dehumanize women as either animals or objects are more liable to rape and sexually harass women and display more negative attitudes toward female rape victims.[34]

The role of nations and governments

Sociologists and historians often view dehumanization as central to war. Governments sometimes represent "enemy" civilians or soldiers as less than human so that voters will be more likely to support a war they may otherwise consider mass murder.[citation needed] Dictatorships use the same process to prevent opposition by citizens. Such efforts often depend on preexisting racist, sectarian, or otherwise biased beliefs, which governments play upon through various types of media, presenting "enemies" as barbaric, as undeserving of rights, and as threats to the nation. Alternatively, states sometimes present an enemy government or way of life as barbaric and its citizens as childlike and incapable of managing their own affairs. Such arguments have been used as a pretext for colonialism.[citation needed]

The Holocaust during World War II and the Rwandan Genocide have both been cited as atrocities predicated upon government-organized campaigns of dehumanization, while crimes like lynching (especially in the United States) are often thought of as the result of popular bigotry and government apathy.

Anthropologists Ashley Montagu and Floyd Matson famously wrote that dehumanization might well be considered "the fifth horseman of the apocalypse" because of the inestimable damage it has dealt to society.[35] When people become things, the logic follows, they become dispensable, and any atrocity can be justified.

Dehumanization can be seen outside of overtly violent conflicts, as in political debates where opponents are presented as collectively stupid or inherently evil. Such "good-versus-evil" claims help end substantive debate (see also thought-terminating cliché).

The role of terrorists and rebels

Non-state actors—terrorists in particular—have also resorted to dehumanization to further their cause and assuage pangs of guilt. The 1960s terrorist group Weather Underground had advocated violence against any authority figure, and used the "police are pigs" idea to convince members that they were not harming human beings, but simply killing wild animals. Likewise, rhetoric statements such as "terrorists are just scum", is an act of dehumanization.[36]

In science, medicine, and technology

File:Dachau cold water immersion.jpg
A cold water immersion experiment at Dachau concentration camp presided over by Professor Ernst Holzlöhner (left) and Dr. Sigmund Rascher (right). The subject is wearing an experimental Luftwaffe garment

Relatively recent history has seen the relationship between dehumanization and science result in unethical scientific research. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the Nazi human experimentation on Jews are two such examples. In the former, Black Americans with syphilis were recruited to participate in a study about the course of the disease. Even when treatment and a cure were eventually developed, they were withheld from the Black participants so that researchers could continue their study. Similarly, Nazi scientists conducted horrific experiments on Jewish people during the Holocaust. Dehumanization of these groups justified the research. When this research came to light, efforts were made to protect participants of future research, and currently institutional review boards exist to safeguard individuals from being taken advantage of by scientists.

In a medical context, the passage of time has served to make some dehumanizing practices more acceptable, not less. While dissections of human cadavers was seen as dehumanizing in the Dark Ages (see History of anatomy), the value of dissections as a training aid is such that they are now more widely accepted. Dehumanization has been associated with modern medicine generally, and specifically, has been suggested as a coping mechanism for doctors who work with patients at the end of life.[1][37] Researchers have identified six potential causes of dehumanization in medicine: deindivudating practices, impaired patient agency, dissimilarity (causes which do not facilitate the delivery of medical treatment), mechanization, empathy reduction, and moral disengagement (which could be argued, do facilitate the delivery of medical treatment).[38]

From the patient point of view, in some states in America, controversial legislation requires that a woman view the ultrasound image of her fetus before being able to have an abortion. Critics of the law argue that simply seeing an image of the fetus humanizes it, and biases women against abortion.[39] Similarly, a recent study showed that subtle humanization of medical patients appears to improve care for these patients. Radiologists evaluating X-rays reported more details to patients and expressed more empathy when a photo of the patient's face accompanied the X-rays.[40] It appears that inclusion of the photos counteracts the dehumanization of the medical process.

Dehumanization has applications outside traditional social contexts. Anthropomorphism (i.e., perceiving in nonhuman entities mental and physical capacities that reflect humans) is the inverse of dehumanization, which occurs when characteristics that apply to humans are denied to other humans.[41] Waytz, Epley, and Cacioppo suggest that the inverse of the factors that facilitate dehumanization (e.g., high status, power, and social connection) should facilitate anthropomorphism. That is, a low status, socially disconnected person without power should be more likely to attribute human qualities to pets or electronics than a high-status, high-power, socially connected person.

Researchers have found that engaging in violent video game play diminishes perceptions of both one's own humanity and the humanity of the players who are targets of the violence in the games.[42] While the players are dehumanized, the video game characters that play them are likely anthropomorphized.

Dehumanization has occurred historically under the pre-tense of "progress in the name of science". During the St. Louis World's fair in 1904 human zoos exhibited several natives from independent tribes around the globe, most notably a young Congolese man Ota Benga. Benga's imprisonment was put on display as a public service showcasing “a degraded and degenerate race”. During this period religion was still the driving force behind much political and scientific action, and because of this, eugenics were widely supported among the most notable US scientific communities, political figures, and industrial elites. After allocating to New York in 1906, public outcry led to the permanent ban and closure of human zoos in the United States.[43]

History & Colonialism

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s book on civil rights Why We Can't Wait, he explains "Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race."

Mi'kmaq elder and human rights activist Daniel N. Paul has researched written extensively of historic accounts of atrocious acts of violence against first nations peoples in North America. His work states European colonialism in canada and america was a subjugation of the indigenous peoples and is an unequivocal violent series of crimes against humanity which has been unparalleled historically. Tens of millions first nations died at the hands of european invaders in an attempt to appropriate the entirety of the land. Those hundreds of diverse civilizations and communities who thrived across north america millions of years before the exploits of Cristopher Columbus were ultimately destroyed. Dehumanization occurred in the form of barbaric genocidal processes of murder, rape, starvation, enslavement, allocation, and germ warfare. Of the myriad of ways the English performed ethnic cleansing, one of the most frequent was the practice of bounty hunting and scalping—where colonial conquerers would raid communities and remove the scalps of children and adults. This war crime of scalping was most prevalent when maritime colonialists repeatedly attempted to eradicate Daniel N. Paul's ancestors, the Mi'kmaq. Scalping was common practice in many united states areas all the way until the 1860s in attempt to completely wipe out the remaining first nations.[44]

Compton's cafeteria riot predates the stonewall riots of 1969 and marks one of the first times in american history that non-hetero-normative peoples denied their oppressors taking agency by demanding human rights. This incident was a result of the rampant discrimination, abuse, and ultimately, dehumanizing acts of violence against the LGBT community in the tenderloin district of San Francisco. Up until the Compton cafeteria riot, the act of dressing in non-gender binary clothing was considered a criminal offence, and police would respond to "cross-dressers" with frequent violence and misconduct. Accounts of frequent sexual assault, police brutality, abuse of power, and constant arrests by local law enforcement towards those seeking refuge in the ghettos of the tenderloin have been told in the documentary Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria.[45]

Democracy and "dignity of man"

German philosopher and anthropologist of law Axel Montenbruck wrote that dehumanization is inextricably linked with both the "techniques of neutralization" (David Matza/Gresham Sykes) and to the obedience aspects of the Milgram experiment and in a wider sense with Philip Zimbardo's Stanford prison experiment.

Montenbruck continues that—in light of our common Western civilization—dehumanization is based on political Humanism, in terms of both human rights and Western democracy. Each of them are grounded in the "dignity of man" aspect. Therefore, its "negation" might be seen as dehumanization in our common Western sense. Furthermore, in light democracy, criminal law might be reduced to the simple formula: violating a person means an act of dehumanization by taking "freedom, unfairly and inhumanely". The reaction of a civilized Western society ought to be "taking freedom as well, but fair and humane".[46]


Dehumanization and dehumanized perception can occur as a result of language used to describe groups of people. Words such as migrant, immigrant, and expatriate are assigned to foreigners based on their social status and wealth, rather than ability, achievements, and political alignment. Expatriate has been found to be a word to describe the privileged, often caucasian people newly residing in an area and has connotations which suggest ability, wealth, and trust. Meanwhile, the word immigrant is used to describe people coming to a new area to reside and infers a much less desirable meaning. Further, "immigrant" is a word that can be paired with "illegal", which harbours a deeply negative connotation to those projecting social cognition towards the other. The misuse and perpetual misuse of these words used to describe the other in the english language can alter the perception of a group in a derogatory way. “Most of the time when we hear [illegal immigrant] used, most of the time the shorter version ‘illegals’ is being used as a noun, which implies that a human being is perpetually illegal. There is no other classification that I’m aware of where the individual is being rendered as illegal as opposed to the actions of that individuals.”[47]

A series of examinations of language sought to find if there was a direct relation between homophobic epithets and social cognitive distancing towards a group of homosexuals, a form of dehumanization. These epithets (e.g., Faggot) were thought to function as dehumanizing labels because of their tendency to act as labels of deviance. In both studies subjects were shown a homophobic epithet, its labelled category, or unspecific insult. Subjects were later prompted to associate words of animal and human connotations to both heterosexuals and homosexuals. The results found that the malignant language, when compared to the unspecific insult and categorized labels, subjects would not connect the human connotative words with homosexuals. Further, the same assessment was done to measure effects the language may have on the physical distancing between the subject and homosexuals. It was found that, similarly to the associative language study prior, subjects became more physically distant to the homosexual, indicating the malignant language could encourage dehumanization, cognitive and physical distancing in ways which other forms of malignant language does not.[48]


Francisco Goya, famed spanish painter and printmaker of the romantic period often depicted subjectivity involving the atrocities of war and brutal violence conveying the process of dehumanization. In the romantic period of painting martyrdom art was most often a means of deifying the oppressed and tormented, and it was common for Goya to depict evil personalities performing these unjust horrible acts. But it was revolutionary the way the painter broke this convention by dehumanizing these martyr figures. "…one would not know whom the painting depicts, so determinedly has Goya reduced his subjects from martyrs to meat."[49]

Other topics

The propaganda model of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky argues that corporate media are able to carry out large-scale, successful dehumanization campaigns when they promote the goals (profit-making) that the corporations are contractually obliged to maximise.[50][51] In both democracies and dictatorships, state media are also capable of carrying out dehumanization campaigns, to the extent with which the population is unable to counteract the dehumanizing memes.[50]

See also



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