Self-Deception, Part 8: Dehumanization

The eighth installment in a new 10-part series on ego defenses.

Posted Feb 06, 2019

Source: Pixabay

The ego defense of dehumanization (or ‘deanimation,' from the Latin anima, or soul) involves seeing other people as less, or other, than human so as to distance them from one’s thoughts and feelings, and in particular the guilt of neglecting or abusing them. A common if fairly innocuous example of dehumanization is that of a person who thinks of her partner or child as a pet, or even a great big teddy bear, so as to better overlook his many failings.

Dehumanization is easier if the target person or people are marked out as different, for example, by age, gender, race, religion, social class, sexual orientation, or even style of dress. Thus, in everyday life, it is all too common to witness people in uniform such as cleaners, police officers, and waiters being treated as mere automatons, devoid of human attributes such as feelings or families.

Some years ago, riots broke out in Bristol, England, over the opening of a new supermarket. From the top of a building, one rioter, BC, dropped a five stone concrete block onto an advancing line of police officers. The block caught officer NF square on the shoulder, knocking him to the ground. Instead of expressing anguish or remorse, BC continued rioting, and even exclaimed, “I want to find that copper I hit on the head. I want to do it again.” During BC’s trial, the court heard that NF was recovering but could not bring himself to upset his wife and three children by telling them what exactly had happened. BC received a total custodial sentence of eleven-and-a-half-years.

DD, a 62-year-old grandmother of nine from Anglesey in Wales, was holidaying in one of the most exclusive areas of Barbados. Then one day, in broad daylight, she was brutally raped by a complete stranger. One year later, she decided to talk about her ordeal in a national newspaper to expose the shabby treatment that she received from the island’s authorities. Of particular note is that she felt certain that she would have been killed if she had not remembered reading somewhere that a victim of rape or attempted rape should try to talk to the rapist and make him see her as a person rather than an object of gratification: “So I told him I was a 61-year-old grandmother with four children and nine grandchildren and felt he slightly softened. I think talking to him saved my life.”

Unfortunately, dehumanization is not limited to thugs and rapists, but can also be deployed by decent, upstanding people. For example, it is often used by healthcare professionals to cope with the emotional demands of being confronted by death and disease, with distressed and vulnerable people being referred to by their diagnoses (“the stroke in Bed 6," “the fractured hip in the ER”) or processed as a long line of faceless patients.

In the early 1970s, psychologist Philip Zimbardo and his colleagues set up a mock prison with hidden cameras and microphones in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology building. The researchers selected 24 healthy, well-adjusted undergraduate students, mostly white, middle-class men, and randomly assigned them to the roles of either prisoner or guard. The ‘prisoners’ were to remain in the mock prison 24 hours a day, while the ‘guards’ were to ‘work’ in three-man teams over eight-hour shifts. The experiment—which has been criticized as much for its ethics as for its methodology—had been scheduled to run for 14 days, but had to be terminated after just six, owing to the aggressive and abusive behavior of the ‘guards’ and the extreme adverse psychological reactions of the ‘prisoners,' five of whom had had to be removed early from the experiment.

Even Zimbardo, who had been acting as the prison warden, had overlooked the dehumanizing behavior of the guards until graduate student Christina Maslach protested them to him. In his subsequent book, The Lucifer Effect, Zimbardo candidly looks back upon the experiment, remarking: ‘Only a few people were able to resist the situational temptations to yield to power and dominance while maintaining some semblance of morality and decency; obviously I was not among that noble class.’ The Stanford Prison Experiment attracted a great deal of interest after the horrific abuses that took place in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and is often cited in support of the important influence of situational factors on human behavior.

Dehumanization is especially common during times of war and strife, when it may be incited by governments in a bid to prosecute, or quell opposition to, the war. If people can be seen as less than human, then any atrocity can be justified. Josef Goebbels, the Minister for ‘Public Enlightenment and Propaganda’ (Volksaufklärung und Propaganda) in Hitler’s Nazi regime, ruthlessly employed all the propaganda tools at his disposal to inflame resurgent anti-Semitic feelings. By attaching the blame for all the economic and social ills of the time on the Jewish people and then lampooning them as an ‘inferior race’, Goebbels prepared the ground for the progressive elimination of their rights and freedoms, and, one thing leading inexorably to the next, the mass genocide of the Holocaust.

For me, the times I feel most like other people are when we laugh together. Laughter is the sound of the shattering of the ego.

If you would like to share further examples of dehumanization, please do so in the comments section.

In the ninth installment in this series, I will be discussing the ego defense of projection.

Go back to Part 1.