A new study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology shows that dehumanization and dislike are processed by two completely separate regions of the brain, suggesting they may be two different psychological processes.

The findings have strong implications for the current migrant situation in America. While polls have shown that the majority of Americans believe that separating migrant families at the border is unacceptable, a substantial percentage seem to have no problem with it. Knowing that dislike and dehumanization are two separate factors can help us understand and address people’s viewpoints.

“When people are dehumanizing others, they are mobilizing different brain regions than when they are registering their dislike,” said co-lead author Emile Bruneau, Ph.D., director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

“Brain regions sensitive to dehumanizing other groups were not sensitive to dislike. And brain regions activated when registering dislike for those same groups were not activated when thinking about how human those groups are.”

The belief that the American government is justified in separating migrant or refugee children from their parents, Bruneau explains, isn’t necessarily values-driven or infused with hatred. It can be a cold, rational evaluation, implying that these children are less human and less deserving of moral concern.

Removal of children from families has a long tradition, and the driver of such actions is often not anchored in dislike or hatred. In fact, some people justify these removals as paternalistic care.

“High dehumanization and low prejudice is the perfect profile of paternalism,” Bruneau explains. “Some Americans may feel we’re doing good in taking these poor immigrant children away from their lawless parents.”

For the study, the research team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe participants’ brain activity as they rated how they felt about 10 different people groups. These ranged from “high-status” groups like Americans, Europeans, and surgeons, to so-called “lower-status” groups like Muslims, Roma, and the homeless, which also included animals such as puppies and rats.

“Dislike” was measured on a feeling thermometer scale, in which researchers ask participants to rate how “cold” or “warm” they felt toward each group, and dehumanization was measured by asking participants to place each group where they thought they belonged on the popular “Ascent of Man” scale depicting the stages of evolution.

Earlier findings from Bruneau and co-lead author Dr. Nour Kteily of Northwestern University showed that while researchers had long been measuring dehumanization implicitly — based on the belief that few would openly admit they felt other people weren’t fully human — in fact, many people have no problem blatantly saying so.

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

When there are high levels of dehumanization in real-life situations, the stakes are high, as it is a strong predictor of aggressive outcomes, such as support for torture, reluctance to provide aid to violence victims, support for armed conflict and support for hostile policies.

Many interventions that attempt to reduce intergroup conflict — between groups like Israelis and Palestinians, blacks and whites in South Africa, or Muslim refugees and Westerners — focus on getting people to like each other more. That, Bruneau said, is very difficult.

It may be easier to get people to see each other as human, which is, after all, an objective truth. At the very least, knowing that dehumanization and dislike are independent roads to intergroup hostility can increase the number of avenues to peace.

Source: University of Pennsylvania