They see us as less than human: Meta-dehumanization predicts intergroup conflict via reciprocal dehumanization

Kteily, N., Hodson, G., & Bruneau, E. (2016). They see us as less than human: Meta-dehumanization predicts intergroup conflict via reciprocal dehumanization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(3), 343.


Although the act of dehumanizing an outgroup is a pervasive and potent intergroup process that drives discrimination and conflict, no formal research has examined the consequences of being dehumanized by an outgroup – i.e. ‘meta-dehumanization’. Across ten studies (N = 3,440) involving several real-world conflicts spanning three continents, we provide the first empirical evidence that meta-dehumanization (a) plays a central role in outgroup aggression that is (b) mediated by outgroup dehumanization, and (c) distinct from meta-prejudice. Studies 1a and 1b demonstrate experimentally that Americans receiving information that Arabs (Study 1a) or Muslims (Study 1b) blatantly dehumanize Americans are more likely to dehumanize that outgroup in return; by contrast, experimentally increasing outgroup dehumanization did not increase metadehumanization (Study 1c). Using correlational data, Study 2 documents indirect effects of meta-dehumanization on Americans’ support for aggressive policies towards Arabs (e.g., torture) via Arab dehumanization. In the context of Hungarians and ethnic minority Roma, Study 3 shows that the pathway for Hungarians from meta-dehumanization to aggression through outgroup dehumanization holds controlling for outgroup prejudice. Study 4 examines Israelis’ meta-perceptions with respect to Palestinians, showing that: (a) feeling dehumanized (i.e., meta-dehumanization) is distinct from feeling disliked (i.e., meta-prejudice), and (b) meta-dehumanization uniquely influences aggression through outgroup dehumanization, controlling for meta-prejudice. Studies 5a and 5b explore Americans’ meta-perceptions regarding ISIS and Iran. We document a dehumanizationspecific pathway from meta-dehumanization to aggressive attitudes and behavior that is distinct from the path from meta-prejudice through prejudice to aggression. In Study 6, Masked Manuscript without Author Information RUNNING HEAD: THEY SEE US AS LESS THAN HUMAN 2 American participants learning that Muslims humanize Americans (i.e., metahumanization) humanize Muslims in turn. Finally, Study 7 experimentally contrasts meta-dehumanization and meta-humanization primes, and shows that resulting differences in outgroup dehumanization are mediated by (1) a general desire to reciprocate the outgroup’s perceptions of the ingroup, and (2) perceived identity threat. In sum, our research outlines how and why meta-dehumanization contributes to cycles of ongoing violence and animosity, thus providing direction for future research and policy.

Collectively blaming groups for the actions of individuals can license vicarious retribution. Acts of terrorism by Muslim
extremists against innocents, and the spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes against innocent Muslims that follow, suggest that
reciprocal bouts of collective blame can spark cycles of violence. How can this cycle be short-circuited? After establishing a
link between collective blame of Muslims and anti-Muslim attitudes and behavior, we used an “interventions tournament” to
identify a successful intervention (among many that failed). The “winning” intervention reduced collective blame of Muslims
by highlighting hypocrisy in the ways individuals collectively blame Muslims—but not other groups (White Americans,
Christians)—for individual group members’ actions. After replicating the effect in an independent sample, we demonstrate
that a novel interactive activity that isolates the psychological mechanism amplifies the effectiveness of the collective blame
hypocrisy intervention and results in downstream reductions in anti-Muslim attitudes and anti-Muslim behavior.