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Z Psychol. 2011 Jan 1;219(3):175-181.

Dehumanized Perception: A Psychological Means to Facilitate Atrocities, Torture, and Genocide?

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Duke University, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Box 90086, 417 Chapel Drive, Durham, NC 27708,
Princeton University, Princeton, NJ.


Dehumanized perception, a failure to spontaneously consider the mind of another person, may be a psychological mechanism facilitating inhumane acts like torture. Social cognition - considering someone's mind - recognizes the other as a human being subject to moral treatment. Social neuroscience has reliably shown that participants normally activate a social-cognition neural network to pictures and thoughts of other people; our previous work shows that parts of this network uniquely fail to engage for traditionally dehumanized targets (homeless persons or drug addicts; see Harris & Fiske, 2009, for review). This suggests participants may not consider these dehumanized groups' minds. Study 1 demonstrates that participants do fail to spontaneously think about the contents of these targets' minds when imagining a day in their life, and rate them differently on a number of human-perception dimensions. Study 2 shows that these human-perception dimension ratings correlate with activation in brain regions beyond the social-cognition network, including areas implicated in disgust, attention, and cognitive control. These results suggest that disengaging social cognition affects a number of other brain processes and hints at some of the complex psychological mechanisms potentially involved in atrocities against humanity.


anterior insula; dehumanization; mental-state verbs; social cognition

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