When we look at the news and hear stories of atrocities performed on humans, by humans, we wonder how people can do such a thing. How were so many Germans who gassed and tortured hundreds of thousands of people during the Holocaust able to live with themselves? Did they not have a conscious? What about those who go on rampages and kill random people just for the kicks, what motivates them? Are they pure evil or is there something in their brain that has gone haywire? They can’t be normal.

Last August a father in Louisiana decided he was tired of caring for his 7-year-old son, who was disabled, so he beheaded him. To most of us that would be unspeakable, yet there are people walking this earth who can commit heinous acts and go back to their loving families as if nothing had happened.

How are these people able to disassociate the bad things they have done and then live as if life was normal? A study by two researchers from Duke and Princeton Universities believe that when some people come in contact with those they find “disgusting” for some reason they disengage themselves and are able to “dehumanize” their victims as if they were insignificant, with no thoughts or feelings.

This behavior, says researchers, could be due to a part of the brain’s failure to connect for social interaction. “When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds and personality. Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human,” said lead author Lasana Harris, an assistant professor in Duke University’s Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Harris co-authored the study with Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.

Through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies scientists have found that in normal people a network in the brain that relates to social cognition – our feelings, emotions, thoughts and empathy – is activated when there is interaction with others or viewing pictures. When volunteers in the study were asked to view photos of people they considered to be homeless, drug addicts or socially low on the ladder there were indications that this social network failed to activate.

“What’s especially striking,” Harris said, “is that people will easily ascribe social cognition — a belief in an internal life such as emotions — to animals and cars, but will avoid making eye contact with the homeless panhandler in the subway.” “We need to think about other people’s experience,” said Fiske. “It’s what makes them fully human to us.”

This type of disconnect could explain how propaganda-type thinking can lead some people to take away the humanity in other people so they can justify treating them less than human. That could explain the conduct of Germans after Hitler associated the race as “vermin” and the Tutsi in Rwanda were thought to be “cockroaches.” I could also explain how one nation could conquer a country and take the residents as slaves. By taking away their human qualities they were able to look at them in a different light – as less than human and worthless.

Harris and Fiske expanded on their earlier work that suggested a lack of social recognition can be associated to rating them differently in the traits we think differentiate humans from anything else. They have found that through dehumanizing a person the brain actually engages itself in the area of disgust, attention and cognitive control – beyond the social networks of the brain.

In order to come to this conclusion they took 119 undergraduate students from Princeton and had them make judgments and form decisions on people as they were shown photos. The researchers examined the responses the students gave as they viewed the pictures of such things as: an elderly man and disabled woman (pity); a businesswoman and a rich man (envy); a female student and a male firefighter (pride); and a female homeless person and male drug addict (disgust).

They were to imagine a day in the life of the persons in the images, and rate their characteristics based on different dimensions – warmth, competence, familiarity, responsibility, control over the situation, intelligence, humanity and a few others. Afterward the students were connected to an MRI scanner where they were again asked to look at the photos.

Networks in the brain involving social interaction did not respond to images of drug addicts, homeless people, immigrants and poor people. “These results suggest multiple roots to dehumanization,” Harris said. “This suggests that dehumanization is a complex phenomenon, and future research is necessary to more accurately specify this complexity.”

The study appears in an issue of Journal of Psychology, titled “Dehumanized Perception: A Psychological Means to Facilitate Atrocities, Torture, and Genocide?”

–From the desk of Ron White




Medical Press – A brain’s failure to appreciate others may permit human atrocities: http://medicalxpress.com/news/2011-12-brain-failure-human-atrocities.html