Research on dehumanization.


What You Think But Don’t Say

You may fancy yourself a lover of all humanity, but according to a new study out of Princeton University, when confronted with extreme social outcasts, such as drug addicts and homeless people, your brain may unconsciously categorize them as less than human.

Neuroimaging research to be published in the October issue of Psychological Science shows that the stereotyping of groups as being sub-human can happen on an unconscious, neurological level, even when a person is not outwardly repulsed.

“People spontaneously categorize other people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and they do that within milliseconds of encountering other people,” said Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske, a co-author of the study.

I wonder if many people instantaneously view autistics the same way. That would, if so, explain the reactions I’ve seen of open revulsion when some people see images of me or other autistic people. If people openly say things like that, I don’t want to know what people’s brains are doing about it.

I also wonder how it relates to within-group interactions. If a person is a member of whatever devalued group they’re talking about, are they going to have this reaction despite being that “kind of person”? (Or, are some people going to?) Like, do some autistic people have this reaction to other autistic people? Etc.

During some of my worst periods of self-hatred, to see another person who reminded me of myself (being autistic or something similar) created an instant sense of hostility and revulsion. I’ve seen autistic people trying to distance themselves from Those Other Autistic People, too. If these are more or less conscious attitudes, what are our unconscious reactions? (By unconscious, I mean the reactions that we’re not consciously aware of. I don’t mean the psychoanalytic unconscious, which I don’t believe in.)

They talk about people judging others in terms of “warmth” and “competence”, and people being more likely to dehumanize those that they consider “low warmth” and “low competence” in combination. Surely that is how autistic people and many other disabled people are perceived by most people. And people routinely view us and many others as expendable, sometimes even explicitly.

I just hope this doesn’t become an excuse to say that bigotry and hate is biological and can’t be helped.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

19 responses »

  1. Wow. This is big, in my opinion.

    Bias has been heavily studied, but I don’t remember seeing this before in my reading of social psych.

    I bet “the elderly” are also seen as less human by many.

  2. Just as there are social constructs that result from biological realities, it appears that there are biological realities that result from social constructs. This doesn’t mean that there’s nothing that can be done about it. In an isolated culture where everyone is black and they’ve only known black people, would they neurologically categorize blacks as less than human? Clearly not. So I’d say that once reality is reconstructed, the neurological reaction also changes.

  3. During some of my worst periods of self-hatred, to see another person who reminded me of myself (being autistic or something similar) created an instant sense of hostility and revulsion.

    I’ve had some experiences along the same lines, specifically with things that most people would consider to be minor facial deformities. I didn’t actually realize that my face was shaped in a way that was ‘non-standard’ until I saw myself in profile in a mirror when I was 8 or 9. I went through a phase for quite a few years afterwards where I would instantly dislike anyone whose face was shaped the same way as mine, and more generally, anyone else whose face looked a little different.

    My answer to the biological excuse is the fact that you can’t divorce people’s perceptions of others as subhuman or nonhuman from social reinforcement of those attitudes. By the time I realized what exactly it was that looked “odd” about my face, I already had a pretty extensive history of being told that I “looked retarded,” and retarded, particularly in the parlance of children, is equated to less than human. The attitude that people in general whose faces look different from what we think of as “standard” are subhuman or intrinsically bad had also been enforced to me by that point.

    I don’t, fyi, have those kinds of reactions any more– I’ve gotten to the point where I can just say “Oh, that person has a face that looks like mine,” and move on, without feeling disgust or hatred towards them in any way. The only thing I might feel that’s out of the ordinary is concern over whether they might have been made to feel bad or lesser over it, been treated as though they were unattractive, unintelligent, or somehow morally wrong because of it. Because I’ve definitely felt all of those things. So whether or not there’s ever a biological component to what people claim are instinctual feelings of revulsion– and I don’t believe there was in my case, certainly– that doesn’t excuse not working to overcome the attitudes.

  4. This saddens me. Even if I have this reaction. I just know that many people who seem repulsive to others are just fine with me. I also wonder how many consider me subhuman. I take comfort in knowing that at least cognizantly, regardless of whatever is being repressed, I’m able to control my thoughts regarding others and some are able to control their thoughts regarding me. Subhuman, is a word I don’t use much or think about much. I don’t see how it could be necessarily active. But then again, for a while, all humans have been rather “hard to understand” and perhaps lumped with aggressive animals like attack animals. ? Certainly, I’ve felt like the runt chicken before, pecked if not to death by the older chicks despite being an older child. School has created a kind of pseudofamilial environment that function rather in this way. I’m not sure it’s so bad or that we fully understand what is meant by these cortical reactions but it is interesting to see what the immediate interpretation was. That tells me something that justifies much of what you point out that I would be fearful of.

  5. People have first impressions of other people they have just met and people should forget their first impressions and give people a fair chance by trying to learn more about them. But for a lot of them it seems a hard thing to do.

    Therefore I like the internet so much. People aren’t judged here on how they look, how their voices sounds, how they display body language, etc.

  6. Speaking of marginalized people: I just read this article [ ] last night, which came up in a search for something else (the advantage of being easily distracted… you find out so much that way) and I was looking at the photos of the people first and then I read the article… It was very odd to consider this article in the light of the ideas about dehumanization that I had been caused to consider by this blog and the websites of the disability rights activists in general.

    Something else —
    One of the main protagonists of this story says at one point:
    [“We want to get off the street, but I got to tell you true,” he said. “Unless they take people like us and put us somewhere where we can’t keep f — ing up, we’re going to keep f — ing up.”]

    Those of you who are unfortunately experts on institutions, what do you think is a way for people in their situation to solve their problems? How do you “keep people from f-ing up” without some kind of force? On the other hand force and other aspects of institutional life have all the problems that you have related in various posts and comments. And I know there is the issue of personal responsability, too… Yet there ought to be some sort of solution for everyone… I am maybe not posing this question very well, but it has been bothering me ever since I read this article.

  7. I used to get that kind of revulsion and anger seeing my reflection when I was self-hating. I’d scratch at my face and eyes and hit myself if I happened to catch a glimpse. By that time I had worked out that my mind, body, physical and facial structure were all non-standard in subtle and unsubtle ways, and had also internalised that that was a bad thing.

    I’ve had experience with the anger that some disabled people feel towards others who look/act like them, too. Sometimes from other people – I’ve known more than one autistic person who would get furious with me due to my being “obviously” autistic, try to stop me from stimming, call me a “retard”, etc. This mostly happened in special education/school, where self-hatred and rivalry seemed to be more encouraged than anything else.

    Oddly enough, though, the same factors that cause some people to recoil from or dehumanise me will attract others. Since I was a baby my family and I have got compliments about my appearance and my “big eyes” and how “thoughtful” I apparently look. Then there are the people who are uncomfortable even being in my vicinity. It’s a strange kind of split.

  8. Well Ms Clarke, read your Thomas Hobbes and you will see the nastiness in human nature, the nihilistic destructive ultimate pessimism that seems to me the way it is.

    All the scientificati have done is confirmed what I could have (and probably did) be telling you time after time.

    There is always in this world “us” “cosa nostra” and “the other” and I cannot say that autistics are any less implicated in this “original sin” for I see it in AFF and Grasp and indeed I cannot say I have never been guiltless myself, because from my position a tree is more human than human

  9. This entry reminded me of a study being done at Harvard-0-the Implicit Association project. There is a website where anyone can participate in tests on your subconscious associations with different groups of people. There is a variety of tests, for example, race, disability, religion, skin-tone, weight, sexuality, gender-career. After you complete the test, you are presented with the results, for example, you show a moderate preference for non-disabled people, or you show no distinguishable preference, etc. I read about the IAT a year or so ago in the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. He made the point that you can alter your result by thinking about particular individuals from a specific group who left a favorable/ positive impression prior to taking the test. This was an important lesson for me personally–to know that I can change my subconscious snap-judgment responses not just for a test but especially for how I think of others as I encounter them in the world. I have learned much from your writings, and I know that you and others have influenced my conscious and subconscious thinking on autistic people.

  10. sorry that post about homeless people was halfway off-topic.

    I couldn’t write something directly pertaining to the post because I was still processing that idea about the dehumanizing first impression. I think it probably makes a lot of sense, I mean, it sounds like something humans do.

    I think I used to be a little scared of some of the nonverbal autistics I knew (not sure why, unless I was nervous because of not knowing what to do) before I knew about my own autism. But I have some vague memories of getting along OK with 2 people I knew while I was in middle/high school, although I didn’t know how to communicate with them. One guy later got into facilitated communication, with his mother, and it was great for them except when people didn’t believe it was real, but this I only know from phone conversations that my mother had with her before they lost touch.

    Right now if I see an autistic person, I sort of have mainly the same curiosity as when I see anyone who “looks interesting” (although, as I have learned from my students, many people are interesting who give off a “totally normal” vibe at first glance). I have met some aspies (other than my parents and husband) in real life and it was ok, but it would be interesting to meet some other autistics.

    Here’s something curious: I am not a neatnik at all, I vacuum as seldom as possible, and (weather permitting) I do wear my clothes several times before washing them, etc. But I try to look and smell clean. And I was realizing that I judge people a lot on first impression if they and/or their clothes seem dirty, which given the previous statements, is totally hypocritical.

  11. Admitting that these traits exist in oneself, whether culturally conditioned or biologically inherent, what does one do about them? This isn’t the first time I have wondered.

  12. Oddly enough, though, the same factors that cause some people to recoil from or dehumanise me will attract others. Since I was a baby my family and I have got compliments about my appearance and my “big eyes” and how “thoughtful” I apparently look. Then there are the people who are uncomfortable even being in my vicinity. It’s a strange kind of split.

    Yeah, I have the big eyes thing going on as well, and have gotten a combination of reactions to it– some people have said it’s beautiful, other people have told me that it’s creepy. When I was younger, there were a number of people who got really angry with me because they thought I was staring at them in an insolent way, and some people seemed to think I was mocking them or deliberately trying to irritate them. None of which I was consciously trying to do. Some of the people I was accused of staring at I hadn’t done much more than glance at.

    Apparently, something about my eyes also gives some people the impression that I’m “not all here.” This has been interpreted favorably, as “lost in thought,” or negatively, as “spazzing” (a word which, as applied to me, seemed to have connotations of thinking there was either nothing going on in my head or that I was absorbed in some ‘fantasy,’ and fantasy seemed to be regarded by a lot of people as just barely above not thinking at all).

  13. People have got the same “not all here” impression from my eyes, and interpreted it in various ways. My gaze has been interpreted as anything from “piercing” to “blank”.

    The shape of my eyes has also drawn mixed reactions. It has been called “exotic”, which I find as icky and demeaning as the people who make more overtly prejudiced/nasty remarks.

  14. Larry, Hobbes was nothing more than a propogandist for authoritarian government, and should be read as such. I rather suspect that most of these reactions are learned, rather than biological, although there probably is a biological component in that all of us ‘sort’ things into categories (are they ‘like us’ or not being only one of many sorting procedures). This kind of sorting and judging isn’t always a bad thing. For myself, if I see a pic of a Muslim, I always feel an automatic positive, as I am very strongly supportive of the Islamic community in the face of the current wave of Islamophobia they are facing. I think if the judgements you make are an emotional reflection of solidarity that you feel with oppressed people, that is surely a good thing?

  15. Pingback: sub-human, redux « Not Like Those People

  16. Pingback: sub-human « Not Like Those People

  17. Pingback: Happiness, Part 2: In which reality is twisted « Urocyon's Meanderings

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