Long before pop culture turned “bitchin” into a synonym for cool, “bitch” was one of the more derogatory epithets you could hurl at a woman. Indeed, man’s best friend doesn’t fare well in the human vocabulary of hate: mongrel, cur, the word dog itself — they’re all common insults. And it’s not just canines: Pig, rat, cow, mule, ape — if you want to malign your enemy, borrow freely from the animal kingdom. Why is this? If you want to suggest that someone is less than human, why take it out on the beasts of the earth? You could just as easily marginalize a foe by comparing him to a machine, yet you never hear: “Get lost, you robot!” (Well, rarely) Or: “You son of an android!”
Scientists are very interested in the ways we deny humanity to others, because this common tendency is the source of so much hate and violence in the world. What kind of cognitive crunching takes place when we marginalize another human being? What is the psychology of an epithet?
Psychologists Stephen Loughnan and Nick Haslam of the University of Melbourne decided to look behind overt insults to see if we do in fact malign others in a variety of ways, some more subtle than others. They hypothesized that, while animals and machines are both less than human, they are less than human in very different ways. That is, dogs and cows lack traits that are unique to humans, like high intelligence and moral sensibility, while androids and robots lack traits that form the foundation of “human nature:” warmth, flexibility, animation. They further predicted that some humans — like children and artists — tend to be associated with animals, lacking traits like civility and self-control. Others — say, business people — more typically lack openness and emotion; in our minds, they are more like robots.
They studied this idea by having volunteers take a common word association test to see how readily they linked different traits with different types of people and with different non-humans. The volunteers were exposed very quickly to a lot of words: say “briefcase,” “fun-loving,” “hard-hearted,” “platypus,” and “software.” They had to decide instantaneously whether to link “briefcase” (or “suit” or “boardroom”) with “fun-loving” or “hard-hearted,” or with “platypus” or “software.” Or instead of “briefcase,” they might be flashed “easel” or “surrealism” to see if they mentally linked it to “trusting” or “rude,” “kangaroo,” or “machine.”
You get the idea. The rapid response times were important, because the scientists were trying to get as close as possible to automatic, unconscious associations — what we think even if we don’t yell it at somebody. And guess what? As predicted and reported in the February issue of Psychological Science, machine imagery was closely associated with commerce and its trappings, and animals with artists and artistry. Furthermore, androids and business people had stronger mental connections to intelligence and sophistication, while animals and artists were more strongly linked to emotionality and animation.
What this means is that we have two distinct ways of defining humanity to ourselves — and two distinct ways of denying others’ their humanity. In other words, even in the absence of overt dislike, our minds may be subtly and automatically dehumanizing people — out of our conscious awareness, every day. We may not be shaking our fists and shouting, “You son of a bitch!” But somewhere back in the brain’s recesses, we may be thinking, “You automaton!”
For more insights into human nature, visit www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.