Teaching: Understanding Our Inner Darkness May Shed Light into Humanity’s Common Good 

Aimed at integrating cutting-edge psychological science into the classroom, Teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science offers advice and how-to guidance about teaching a particular area of research or topic in psychological science that has been the focus of an article in the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

More teaching resources in this Observer: Ethical Research to Help Romania’s Abandoned Children

Karantzas, G., Simpson, J., & Haslam, N. (in press). Dehumanization: Beyond the intergroup to the interpersonal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 0(0).

Our common “goodness” is evident in our inborn capacity for compassion, willingness to help others, and automatic reflex toward cooperating with others (Keltner, 2009; Rand & Nowak, 2013), even in difficult circumstances (Gruber & Marques, 2023). Humans are, in many ways, born to be good—but we don’t always live up to this capacity. 

One example of our psychological dark underbelly is dehumanization, defined as the tendency to see another person or group of people as “less than” human and to consequently deny them basic human rights and fair treatment. Dehumanization helps explain humanity’s darkest behavioral moments including war and violence, slavery, racism, and even genocide (e.g., Markowitz & Slovic, 2020).  

But when, why, and how do we dehumanize others? Karantzas, Simpson, and Haslam (2023) argue that researchers have made significant progress in better understanding dehumanization. They suggest ways that people dehumanize others, from denying someone’s basic humanity to more subtle forms in everyday relationships

Karantzas and colleagues describe how our understanding of dehumanization has evolved over time. Traditional models included two ways people can be dehumanized:  

(1) by denying people their basic human uniqueness, or what separates humans from other non-human animals, such as the capacity for higher-order intelligence and morality or 

(2) human nature, or what distinguishes people from non-living objects, such as the capacity for emotions.  

Most research has focused on social cognitive processes, such as trying to understand the type of people or life factors that lead people to dehumanize others. People are also more likely to dehumanize others based on their own personal life experiences (e.g., when they have been maltreated themselves), individual traits or qualities (e.g., narcissism, psychopathy), and attachment patterns (e.g., higher levels of attachment insecurity). 

Read all of the articles from the November/December Observer.

The boundaries of dehumanizing can expand from strangers to even our most intimate relationships. In romantic relationships, many of the most destructive patterns may be more subtle forms of dehumanizing the partner. This can include treating the partner as if they are immature, displaying contempt, humiliation, and even engaging in conflict avoidance. If these types of behaviors occur frequently or are severe, they can reflect a form of interpersonal dehumanization that can damage the relationship and, importantly, deny the partner a sense of basic humanity. Not surprisingly, these behaviors lead to negative relationship outcomes (i.e., lower relationship quality, commitment, and satisfaction) and individual outcomes (e.g., greater negative emotions, depression feelings, and self-appraisals). We can also extend these darker tendencies to friendships and coworkers as well. 

Bottom line: Appreciating the common humanity in your partner and others matters for your relationships and your own well-being. The study of dehumanization not only helps us understand our darkest moments but may also offer an unexpected path toward restoring our common human good. 

Student Activity

Feedback on this article? Email [email protected] or login to comment. Interested in writing for us? Read our contributor guidelines


APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.