The Dark Psychology Of Dehumanizing Migrants Revealed By Brain Scans

It is possible to dehumanize a refugee child while not actively disliking them, for example thinking you are doing good by separating them from 'lawless' parents. (Except, it shouldn't be easy to dehumanize anyone). Giannis Papanikos/Shutterstock

Humans are capable of doing some horrific things to each other. Much of this is only made possible when we dehumanize people and view them as separate outsiders who are somehow “less than human”. It’s a theme that occurs throughout history, whether it's the horrors of the Holocaust or the brutality of European colonialism, and has gained a ugly new relevance in our current political climate, most clearly demonstrated by world leaders referring to migrants as “insects” or “animals.”

A new study has taken an in-depth look at the human tendency to dehumanize "others" and attempts to understand the brain process behind it. It had previously been assumed that dehumanization was an extreme version of dislike, however, using a series of fMRI scans, researchers revealed that “dehumanization” and “dislike” are actually processed by two separate brain regions, suggesting they are two totally different psychological processes.

This distinction could hold some big implications. First of all, it suggests that we are capable of both disliking but not dehumanization someone (such as an annoying sibling, for example), as well as liking someone yet also dehumanizing them (such as the child of an immigrant).

"High dehumanization and low prejudice is the perfect profile of paternalism. Some Americans may feel we're doing good in taking these poor immigrant children away from their lawless parents," co-lead author Emile Bruneau, director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, said in a statement.

Importantly, the study also suggests that dehumanization is much more than simply a strong expression of dislike, perhaps explaining why dehumanization of others – but not merely disliking someone – can be used to justify unimaginable atrocities.

As reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the researchers asked participants how they felt about 10 different groups of people, including white Americans, Europeans, surgeons, Muslims, Roma, homeless people, and also animals like puppies and rats. While hooked up to a fMRI brain scanner, they were asked how "cold" or "warm" they feel toward each group on a sliding scale, then asked where each group belonged on the "Ascent of Man" scale depicting stages of evolution.

Puppies first, right? Uncle Leo/Shutterstock

Crucially for the study, it showed how their neural responses were totally different when dehumanizing people compared to judging how much they disliked them. 

The researchers noted their surprise at how openly participants placed other humans lower down on the “Ascent of Man”, believing many wouldn't readily admit they could see others as less than human. 

“The whole reason I study dehumanization is that I’m interested in intervening to reduce intergroup hostility,” Bruneau added. “Understanding there’s a fundamental difference between dehumanization and dislike is academically interesting, but more importantly, it may prove practically useful.”

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