People rarely respond well to being demeaned and humiliated. When they believe others see them as lesser beings, they react with anger, revenge and distrust. In doing so, they deepen and entrench a mutual hatred.
There is no better laboratory for studying these processes of reciprocal hostility than recent US politics. We have a new administration whose policy and rhetoric convey undisguised animosity to Muslim and immigrant groups in particular. That animosity is breeding a bitter but predictable reaction.
A recent series of studies shines a clinical light on how these vicious circles of dehumanisation can arise. American psychologists Nour Kteily and Emile Bruneau show how some politicians appeal to those who demonise marginalised groups, and how those groups respond with intensified hostility.
The foundation for their work is recent research on the psychology of dehumanisation. Social psychologists have demonstrated that people commonly perceive members of other groups as less than fully human. Often these perceptions are very subtle. People may reserve uniquely human characteristics for their own group and deny them to other groups.
Kteily and Bruneau argue dehumanisation is often much less subtle. People are sometimes very willing to blatantly deny others’ humanity.
To examine this possibility they employ the familiar “ascent of man” image. People are asked to rate where members of a particular group fall on the continuum from knuckle-dragging ape at one end (scored 0) to modern human at the other (100).
Remarkably, many study participants rate marginalised groups well below 100. In earlier studies, American participants gave a mean rating of 78 for Muslims and 84 for Mexican immigrants, well below the 92 rating for Americans. In one study, Hungarians gave an average rating of 29 for Roma. These findings betray an uncensored willingness to see marginal groups as bestial, primitive and barbaric.
Importantly ratings such as these are associated with a variety of harsh responses to the groups in question. People who dehumanised Arabs were more opposed to Arab immigration and more accepting of discrimination against Arabs. They were also more supportive of drone attacks, torture, revenge attacks and other harsh counter-terrorist practices.
In their most recent work, Kteily and Bruneau enter the political arena. They explore how dehumanising perceptions of Muslims and Mexican immigrants that were inflamed during the Republican primaries resonated with the US electorate. They went on to examine how these perceptions are stirring a backlash by the dehumanised.
The primaries are now a vanishing memory of a time when what has happened might have been otherwise. Now that travel bans and border walls are not mere campaign promises, it’s instructive to understand the psychology that made them possible.
Perceptions of Muslims and immigrants
In the first two studies, conducted in late 2015, Kteily and Bruneau studied blatant dehumanisation of Mexican immigrants and Muslims by non-Latino and non-Muslim Americans, respectively. Both studies were very similar.
Large US samples completed measures of dehumanisation, prejudice and political orientation, as well as attitudes and policy preferences towards the marginal group. Finally study participants rated their levels of support for the current slate of Republican and Democratic presidential candidates.
In the first study, Mexican immigrants were dehumanised relative to Americans as a group. People who dehumanised them more were most supportive of harsh anti-immigrant policies such as wall-building, deportation and detention. High dehumanisers were especially likely to support Donald Trump over his four Republican and two Democratic rivals.
In the second study, Muslims were dehumanised to an even greater extent than Mexican immigrants. People who dehumanised them more were most opposed to Muslim immigration, had the harshest anti-Muslim attitudes and showed the strongest support for aggressive counter-terrorist policies. Again, they were most likely to support Donald Trump, even compared to seven of his illiberal fellow Republicans.
It is standard practice to attribute anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment to racism or right wing ideology, but both studies indicate that these only tell part of the story. Even when political conservatism and dislike for the groups (prejudice) were taken into account, blatant dehumanisation was powerfully associated with harsh attitudes. Hostility to marginal groups often goes beyond simple negative evaluations and political principles and reflects the sincere belief they are barbarians.
Perceptions by Muslims and immigrants
But what of how the “barbarians” feel towards the dehumanisers? Kteily and Bruneau’s third and fourth studies complement their first two. In both they explore the extent to which Latino and Muslim Americans believe Donald Trump individually and Republicans or other Americans collectively see them as less than fully human. They also explore whether those beliefs are associated with an assortment of hostile attitudes.
Once again the results of the two studies are similar. Latino Americans who believed Trump saw them as subhuman returned the favour by seeing him as less than human as well, rating him a simian 51. They also held more negative attitudes towards him, expressed greater hostility, including a willingness to spit on him and a desire that he should get seriously ill and, not surprisingly, supported his candidacy less. Equivalent findings emerged for their attitudes towards Republicans in general.
Similarly, Muslim Americans tended to believe Trump and non-Muslim Americans saw them as less than fully human. Those who believed this to a greater extent held more negative assessments of Trump and other Americans. More troublingly these beliefs were tied to broader sentiments.
Muslim Americans who felt especially dehumanised by their fellow Americans tended to feel less integrated into American society. They felt and also desired less connection to other Americans and were more hostile towards non-Muslim citizens. They endorsed the idea of a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West, and expressed stronger support for violent collective action and less readiness to report possible terrorist activity.
The implications of this work are disturbing. Political rhetoric such as Donald Trump’s resonates with people who see some groups as not only socially marginal but also as marginally human. Those dehumanising perceptions underpin support for hostile and exclusionary policies.
The targets of those policies, seeing that their humanity is neither recognised nor respected, react with animosity of their own and pull away from the social contract. Hostility is met with polarised hostility, and the sense of mutual distrust and disdain are deepened. This is a sobering and pessimistic conclusion, but one that this important piece of research forces on us.