Penn researcher reports on the evils that come with dehumanization

The recent embattled executive order that banned travel and immigration to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries dehumanizes minority group members and may not stop violence, but instead promote it, says Emile Bruneau, a research associate and director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication.

“Intergroup conflict is often asymmetrical,” he says. “One group has power and one doesn’t. If the disempowered group feels humiliated by policies enacted by the dominant group and has no peaceful method to respond, they may turn to violence.”

To study the effects of dehumanization, Bruneau and Nour Kteily of Northwestern University collected online data from several hundred Americans during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries and caucuses. They assessed participants’ political leanings, attitudes about Mexican immigrants, and attitudes about Muslims. The researchers also looked at participants’ support for then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposed border policies.

Their study, “Backlash: The Politics and Real-World Consequences of Minority Group Dehumanization,” was recently published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

Using a measurement that Bruneau characterized as “blatantly dehumanizing and totally offensive,” they asked people to place groups where they thought they belonged on the “Ascent of Man” scale [from the knuckle dragging, ape-like human ancestor (0) through modern fully evolved upright human (100).]

The researchers found that many participants placed Mexican and Muslim immigrants, as well as American-born Muslims, significantly lower on the scale than Americans as a whole.

“The average dehumanization of Muslims by Americans right now is 15 points below the point on the scale that they place themselves,” Bruneau says.

This willingness to dehumanize groups of people predicted support for aggressive anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies proposed by Republican nominees.

To further explore the consequences of dehumanizing campaign rhetoric, the researchers examined “meta-dehumanization,” how much members of one group feel another group dehumanizes them.

Their study concluded that the degree to which Muslims and Mexicans felt dehumanized by Americans as a whole predicted their support for violent versus non-violent forms of protest, and an unwillingness to assist in counter-terrorism efforts, such as “a reluctance to contact the FBI if they saw something suspicious in their communities.”

Bruneau’s deep interest in intergroup conflict has been fueled by his experiences traveling and working in different conflict regions, and witnessing the consequences of violence and conflict firsthand. He was in South Africa in 1994 during the transition from apartheid to democracy, in Sri Lanka during one of the largest Tamil Tiger strikes in that nation’s history, in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles,” and working in the West Bank soon after the Second Intifada.

His prior studies have focused on dehumanization, empathy, and motivated reasoning between members of groups embroiled in conflict (e.g., Israelis and Palestinians), as well as groups subjected to extreme hostility, such as Muslims in the United States and Europe, and the Roma (Gypsy) community in Europe.

Bruneau says it is important to point out that the consequences of dehumanization are not limited to certain populations.

“Every group that we’ve examined responds aggressively when they feel dehumanized by another group,” he says. “For example, we have also shown that the degree to which Americans oppose the Iranian Nuclear Accord and support military action against Iran is strongly related to how dehumanized Americans feel by Iranians. Dehumanization is a powerful psychological force—both for the dehumanizers and the dehumanized—with dire consequences.”

Emile Bruneau