The harm caused by dehumanising language

The words we use when describing others can be important if we want to avoid a slide to something worse.

31 October 2023// BBC

Sticks and stones famously break bones – but words can also hurt you. It is there in the charged rhetoric from both sides of the conflict unfolding in Israel and Gaza, just as it can be found in the language of clashes around the world: old tropes and name-calling that seek to paint whole groups of people as somehow less than human.

Those observing the current conflict in Israel and Gaza will have heard voices from both sides refer to each other as “animals” and “beasts” in various forms. From the mouths of political leaders and media commentators it can at first appear to be little more than theatrical flourish – something said for effect. But a body of research suggests there are reasons why we should all be hyper-vigilant about the words that we use and hear. 

“Hated, despised and distrusted groups are often described in dehumanising ways – both blatantly through animal metaphors and more subtly by using less humanising, distinctively human descriptions,” says Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne in Australia. “There’s surprisingly little evidence that dehumanising language causes violent behaviour, but plenty of evidence says it accompanies it. People who dehumanise others are certainly more likely to treat them badly.”

The use of animalistic slurs, for example, have been found to increase people’s willingness to endorse harm by changing perceptions of social desirability, according to research by psychologists Florence Enock, a senior research associate with the Alan Turing Institute’s Online Safety Team, and Harriet Over, from the University of York, UK. In an experiment, they created a set of fictional political groups and described them in different ways to the study’s participants. Some descriptions included words like “snakes” or “cockroaches”, while others included negative human descriptors. “The participants who rated the parties described in animal terms said they were more undesirable, and had more willingness to harm those groups,” says Enock.

Research into dehumanisation was catalysed after World War Two, where psychologists tried to examine how populations could be led into war and genocide. The memoirs written by the chemist Primo Levi about his time in Auschwitz, provide just such an example. Recent analysis of them by Adrienne de Ruiter, assistant professor in philosophy and humanism at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, the Netherlands, found that the dehumanisation he and others faced in the Nazi’s death camps functioned to strip them, in the eyes of their guards, of any moral reasons against mistreatment. Rather than being literally thought of as an animal or a monster by their perpetrators, they were seen as humans who didn’t count.

Psychologists use terms like othering as well as “the outgroup/ingroup effect” to talk about the space in which dehumanising language occurs. In social psychology, the outgroup homogeneity bias studies the concept that you’re likely to see members of a group different from your own as similar to each other. In other words, they are all the same, whereas we are all diverse individuals.

In an illustration of this effect, a study from 2013 conducted by psychologists at the University of Kent, in the UK, found that the more Christian participants associated dehumanised words in connection with Muslims, the higher their self-reported willingness to support the torture of Muslim prisoners of war. Interestingly, when the researchers primed their Christian participants with a text about Muslim culture that contained words that describe uniquely human qualities such as “passion” and “ambitious”, they were less likely to later pick out dehumanising word to describe Muslims than those primed with a more neutral text. They were also less likely to endorse the use of torture.

So, the more you hear a group described in a dehumanised way, the more likely you are to dehumanise them yourself. This leads to a reciprocal, vicious cycle. But it may also depend a little on your own personal background. 

“People who are higher in social dominance, or look at social hierarchy between groups as desirable, tend to be more likely to dehumanise,” says Nour Kteily, co-director of the Dispute Resolution Research Center at Northwestern University in Illinois in the US. In the context of violence, groups who often feel dehumanised then dehumanise in kind, he says. “We’re starting to see we often assume or have perceptions about how dehumanised we are.”

He points to a study that asked participants to rate someone on a scale of 0-100 in terms of how evolved they thought someone was, in the context of a famous images depicting “the ascent of man”. It found that Democrats and Republicans thought their rivals would rate them as 60 points below being considered fully human, whereas they actually placed them at 20-30 points below being fully human. They had correctly identified they were being dehumanised – but they were grossly overestimating how much they were being dehumanised.