Can you dehumanize yourself?

man looking at mirror sees ape monkey
© Kletr/Shutterstock

Researchers found that people who lie feel less human.

During World War II, the government plastered posters like this all over the place:

Yep, that's a Japanese person being caught in a mouse trap. Normally, when people talk about dehumanization, this is what they're talking about: people convincing themselves that their targets aren't really human. And if someone isn't human, goes human logic, you can do just about anything to them. You can kick a dog, shoot a deer for the antlers and burn ants alive without consequence.

But researchers from Northwestern University recently had a much stranger question about dehumanization: Do people actually dehumanize themselves?

The researchers ran some experiments in which they had participants describe times they'd acted immorally and gave participants the opportunity to cheat. They asked questions designed to measure free will and other "humanly" qualities. Questions included "Compared to the average person, how capable are you of doing things on purpose?” and “Compared to the average person, how capable are you of experiencing emotion?"

Their study, which was published in Pychological Science, found that people who cheated or lied actually felt less human in questionnaires while they were thinking about their own immorality. There seems to be a link between acting immorally and thinking of yourself as less than human.

The researchers say that, during dehumanization, humans think about themselves more like animals, or even robots.

"Self-dehumanization can sometimes produce downward spirals of immorality, demonstrating initial unethical behavior leading to self-dehumanization, which in turn promotes continued dishonesty," write the researchers.

Scientists refer to the oldest part of our brains as our "reptile brains," and that's because reptiles (and other animals) have basically the same things. Humans have additional "mammal brains" and "primate brains" built on top of the old brains, and these new ones help humans get along with each other. So in a way, when people act "inhumanly," they actually are acting a little less human, or at least less emblematically human.

A lot of times, leading voices think about competition as a good thing. Teaming up against other businesses is how markets grow. Characters from "The Wolf of Wall Street" practically turned tricking investors into a religion. In addition to separating groups of humans, this kind of "every man for himself" philosophy separates humans from other animals too. Eating a bucket of chicken fingers every day is perfectly fine in a word where non-humans don't matter. But if this study is onto something, then dehumanizing other people and animals doesn't just cause rifts in society. It makes the person doing the dehumanizing a little less human too.

Can you dehumanize yourself?
Researchers found that people who lie feel less human.

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