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Dehumanizing the Enemy

Research has shown nearly everyone has the capacity to think of others as less than human. But people pay different psychological costs depending on how they dehumanize others, researchers contend in a chapter for the upcoming book, Responsibilities to Protect: Different Perspectives.

“Dehumanizing is a relatively subtle process that has profound effects, causing us to be indifferent to the suffering of others,” says Anthony Jack, PhD, an assistant professor of cognitive science who uses brain imaging for his studies.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, Jack previously showed that people have two antagonistic brain networks. These networks normally prevent them from being simultaneously analytic and empathetic.

In this research, he used fMRI and found that, when thinking of another as an object, people deactivate the brain’s empathetic network and also may activate the analytic network. This cycling between networks is a natural, healthy function.

When thinking of another as so animal- like as to evoke disgust, people activate both networks. This kind of thinking is used in antisocial, manipulative behavior and is most closely associated with mental illnesses. The findings appeared in the journal NeuroImage in June.

Building on the findings, Jack and Shannon French, PhD,the Inamori Professor of Ethics and associate professor of philosophy, note that simply objectifying opponents (seeing them as “targets to be neutralized,” for example) enables strategic thinking and results in less severe post-traumatic stress. Evoking hatred and disgust, on the other hand, increases the potential for trauma.