A brain's failure to appreciate others may permit human atrocities

A father in Louisiana bludgeoned and beheaded his disabled 7-year-old son last August because he no longer wanted to care for the boy.

For most people, such a heinous act is unconscionable.

But it may be that a person can become callous enough to commit human atrocities because of a failure in the that's critical for social interaction. A new study by researchers at Duke University and Princeton University suggests this function may disengage when people encounter others they consider disgusting, thus "dehumanizing" their victims by failing to acknowledge they have thoughts and feelings.

This shortcoming also may help explain how depicting Tutsi in Rwanda as and Hitler's classification of Jews in Nazi Germany as vermin contributed to torture and , the study said.

"When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds. 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.

Social neuroscience has shown through MRI studies that people normally activate a network in the brain related to -- thoughts, feelings, empathy, for example -- when viewing pictures of others or thinking about their thoughts. But when participants in this study were asked to consider images of people they considered drug addicts, homeless people, and others they deemed low on the social ladder, parts of this network failed to engage.

What's especially striking, the researchers 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," Fiske said. "It's what makes them fully human to us."

The duo's previous research suggested that a lack of social cognition can be linked to not acknowledging the mind of other people when imagining a day in their life, and rating them differently on traits that we think differentiate humans from everything else.

This latest study expands on that earlier work to show that these traits correlate with activation in brain regions beyond the social cognition network. These areas include those brain areas involved in disgust, attention and cognitive control.

The result is what the researchers call "dehumanized perception," or failing to consider someone else's mind. Such a lack of empathy toward others can also help explain why some members of society are sometimes dehumanized, they said.

For this latest study, 119 undergraduates from Princeton completed judgment and decision-making surveys as they viewed images of people. The researchers sought to examine the students' responses to common emotions triggered by images such as:

  • a female college student and male American firefighter (pride)
  • a business woman and rich man (envy)
  • an elderly man and disabled woman (pity)
  • a female homeless person and male drug addict (disgust)
After imagining a day in the life of the people in the images, participants next rated the same person on various dimensions. They rated characteristics including the warmth, competence, similarity, familiarity, responsibility of the person for his/her situation, control of the person over their situation, intelligence, complex emotionality, self-awareness, ups-and-downs in life, and typical humanity. Participants then went into the MRI scanner and simply looked at pictures of people.

The study found that the neural network involved in failed to respond to images of drug addicts, the homeless, immigrants and poor people, replicating earlier results.

"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 sample's mean age was 20, with 62 female participants. The ethnic composition of the Princeton students who participated in the study was 68 white, 19 Asian, 12 of mixed descent, and 6 black, with the remainder not reporting.

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More information: The study, "Dehumanized Perception: A Psychological Means to Facilitate Atrocities, Torture, and Genocide?" appears in a recent issue of the Journal of Psychology: DOI:10.1027/2151-2604/a000065
Provided by Duke University
Citation: A brain's failure to appreciate others may permit human atrocities (2011, December 14) retrieved 17 June 2019 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2011-12-brain-failure-human-atrocities.html
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Dec 14, 2011
Princeton students?

No mean in society. there. We're talking privileged people who have no capacity to identify with the people who are in the worst shape.

Put those kids on the streets in a serious/real way, for a full month (21 days is an addiction cycle, it might play in here as well-ie moon cycle as well). Gift them with the capacity to identify with these people.

The basis of the study does not appear to have any 'center of society' to it. however, that may have been the point.

it is then easy to see how those people of that group who are TRULY sociopaths.... can rise the top and dominate corporations and politics. Which is where their visibly extant and truly aberrant and abhorrent behavior comes from.

Then the downtrodden end up being forcibly eliminated.

Until there is a new bottom to be eliminated, that is.

this is a simple argument I'm only beginning to outline.

I accept that it can't be fixed in the comments section at a news site.

Dec 14, 2011
It's not just the populaces of dehumanizing regimes, it's us right here in the good old USA. Think about how many thousands of Iraqi civilians have been caught in our crossfire that we're never told about, or the news blackout on the returning coffins of soldiers killed over there, or the lumping of all of the Middle East as the enemy. Not to mention the whole Vietnam era which introduced the word "gooks" into the language.

Dec 15, 2011
People at the bottom of the pile have always been viewed in a dehumanized way. Consider the work houses and repressive legislation in the era of Charles Dickens. "A good indian is a dead indian" and similar sentiments are also born of our inherent contempt for weakness/lack of status.
A repressive regime can easily harness such sentiments in regard to an "outgroup" to recruit concentration camp guards and death squads -just look at the examples in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. And lynchings have always been with us.

Dec 15, 2011
A father beheaded his disabled boy. Seems callous at first.

Before I proceed: This act is in no way justified. But at the same time it is not so atrocious as to be incomprehensible. Caring for a disabled person (especially a child) is a 24/7 job. Day after day (and often at night, too). Year after year. No 'off' days. No holodays.
If the disabled person is your child this means: Until the end of your own life.
In effect: your own (social) life is over.
How someone can get to the point where they cannot live with such a prospect I can fully understand. (Though murder is certainly not the way out!)

The point I'm trying to make here is: This is not an example of callousness. The father did care for his child for seven years. If there had been a failure to appreciate another's life here then he'd have murdered his son right after birth.

Dec 15, 2011
"These results suggest multiple roots to dehumanization,"

No sh*t, Sherlock.

How else would we explain that dehumanizing efforts in war can turn large proportions of a populace into callous human beings towards 'the enemy' (including all soldiers - but on those these efforts are already spent during peacetime)?
These are the same people that can feel remorse after the war.

It seems obvious that callousness cannot be solely attributed to structural brain attributes (otherwise no one would ever feel remorse). Only those who persist in not caring about their victims MIGHT have some structural brain deficiency.

Dec 15, 2011
I think that using the term "dehumanization" taints the results. It implies that all non-human life forms can be treated cruelly. In reality our actions towards all species are more affected by our empathy or lack thereof. Compassionate individuals avoid the cruel treatment of any living creature. I suspect it has more to do with the sense of "self and "other". When we see ourselves in the other, we more considerate? Perhaps "inhumanity" is in the perpetrator's lack of empathy. Measure that!

Dec 15, 2011
Appreciation has many levels.

Would I mean harm to another person? Certainly not.

Do I appreciate others?

Do what's right for yourself and for others, and I don't guess there's any other measure of appreciation.

Unfortunately, other people have a different perception of what they believe is right for themselves, and have other expectatiosn of you, and of course, they often have irrational motivations or make ignorant decisions based on lack of knowledge, stubbornness, foolishness, etc, and then you have to be bothered with watching that...

Appreciation pretty much has to be earned, I guess, then again "earned" isn't quite the right word either, but nothing else suffices.

Then again, I never quite figured out how to make someone else appreciate me, not friends, family, co-workers, church member, nobody really.

The people I least appreciate are Church Members, because they let me down more than anyone. They are a disgrace to God and humanity.

Dec 15, 2011
Put those kids on the streets in a serious/real way, for a full month (21 days is an addiction cycle, it might play in here as well-ie moon cycle as well). Gift them with the capacity to identify with these people.
Sorry, Princeton students did not get there because they are snobs but they are more capable than most other people. As such they can be expected on average to have more empathy and more compassion than most people who are on the street do. They would also fare far better on the street than the average person, and would not remain there for long.

"...a person can become callous enough to commit human atrocities because of a failure in the part of the brain that's critical for social interaction."

-Indeed the human brain is an organ pushed way past it's natural limits by the demands imposed upon it through endemic tribal warfare. It is too energy-hungry, too fragile, and too prone to debilitating defects which would normally have meant death in the wild.

Dec 15, 2011
But as far as the father and his disabled child, we often forget to look at these events from a Pleistocene perspective which is where most of our behaviors originated. Perhaps the urge to eliminate defective offspring is a natural one? This was often the reason for infanticide in the past. Jerusalemites used to give them to moloch in the Gehenna ravine.

And atrocity toward perceived enemies is part of the tribal dynamic - strong intratribal altruism combined with intertribal animosity made tribes successful. The next tribe is always a little less human than you and your homies yes? The next tribe was often regarded as a viable source of high-grade protein. There is little difference between hunting and fighting after all.

This dynamic is institutionalized and exploited in nationalist and religionist social systems to great effect. Nazis did not create bigotry, they exploited a tendency that was already there. It exists in all of us. They learned this from the old testament.

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