Dr. Emile Bruneau on Top of Mind:
Throughout history humans have justified atrocities by defining victims as subhuman, often quite openly. European American dealings with Indians, white Southerners justifying slavery, and Nazis massacring Jews. But how much do we really know about how dehumanizing happens? Can the process be changed?
The findings have strong implications for the current migrant situation in America. While polls have shown that the majority of Americans believe that separating migrant families at the border is unacceptable, a substantial percentage seem to have no problem with it. Knowing that dislike and dehumanization are two separate factors can help us understand and address people’s viewpoints.
“High dehumanization and low prejudice is the perfect profile of paternalism,” Emile Bruneau, Ph.D., said in the statement. He explains that Americans who can accept Trump’s zero tolerance policy might not do so out of hatred but because they think doing so is natural; they may feel, he says, that “these children are just less human and less deserving of moral concern.”
Humans are capable of doing some horrific things to each other. Much of this is only made possible when we dehumanize people. It’s a theme that occurs throughout history, whether it’s the horrors of the Holocaust or the brutality of European colonialism, and has gained a ugly new relevance in our current political climate, most clearly demonstrated by world leaders referring to migrants as “insects” or “animals.”
“When people are dehumanizing others, they are mobilizing different brain regions than when they are registering their dislike,” said co-lead author Dr. Emile Bruneau from the University of Pennsylvania.
To put into perspective, you may love a puppy or an infant while acknowledging that they don’t have a fully realized human mind. And you may dislike a colleague but still acknowledge them as human.
It has long been thought that characterizing people as less than human was an expression of extreme dislike. Now, neuroscientists find that neurologically, these two viewpoints actually differ.
“When people are dehumanizing others, they are mobilizing different brain regions than when they are registering their dislike,” Emile Bruneau, director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, said in announcing the findings. He believes they could help us design more effective interventions to reduce prejudice.
“These aren’t people,” President Trump said Wednesday at a White House meeting with California officials. “These are animals.” In a tweet Friday morning, Trump specified that he was referring to MS-13 gang members and not “Immigrants, or Illegal Immigrants,” in general, and called this “a big difference.” Is it, though? Also, Trump has said many negative things about many groups; why should his choice of term here, regardless of whether it was applied narrowly to a murderous gang, be particularly troubling?
The answer to both questions lies in the distinction between dehumanization — seeing people as animals — and prejudice or dislike. Dehumanization is associated with hostility and antagonistic behavior, and it’s not the same as dislike.
The month following the November 2015 Paris terrorist attack, incidents of hate crimes in the United States against Muslims spiked to 45, up from an average of 13 monthly incidents the previous four years, according to FBI data. However, after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting by a white male, the same directed anger toward white men never materialized.
Emile Bruneau wanted to understand why such collective blame—holding an entire group responsible for the actions of one individual—applies to some populations but not others.
Emile Bruneau: Wafa Idriss was a child living in Palestine during the First Intifada. When she grew up, she dedicated her time to helping others: She provided social support for prisoners’ families and delivered food during curfews. She trained as a medic and began volunteering with the Red Crescent Society. Then in 2002, during the Second Intifada, Wafa Idriss detonated a bomb in central Jerusalem that killed herself and an Israeli man and wounded 100 others. She was the first Palestinian female suicide bomber.
Although there are certainly many factors that can motivate people to engage in political violence, my experiences living, working and traveling in conflict regions for over a decade have, led me to focus on two: empathy (but perhaps not how you would think) and dehumanization.
On one side, Muslim extremists cite transgressions by the U.S. overseas as justification for killing innocent American civilians, and on the other side, Americans blame all Muslims for these attacks by Muslim extremists, which can fuel a spike in hate crimes against innocent Muslims immediately afterwards. The question that struck me as I scrolled through the social media posts was, “Which of these approaches work?”
New insights into the underpinnings of empathy might help us harness the emotion—just when we need it the most
Last year a striking video made its way around the Internet. In it, male sports fans sat, one at a time, opposite a female sports reporter who had been the target of abusive, misogynist tweets. Each man had to read the messages aloud to the woman who received them. One of the few printable examples was, “I hope your boyfriend beats you.” The goal of the project, created by a Web site called Just Not Sports, was to force the men to experience “the shocking online harassment happening to women in sports day in, day out.” Every man involved appeared to come away with a better sense of how awful it was to be on the receiving end of such nastiness. Full article here.
“Can facts change beliefs? Research is still being done on the topic. But, the fact that it’s unclear if that’s the case says a lot about how firmly held our opinions can be. If an army of fact-checkers can’t move a mind, what can? This summer, New York Times columnist David Leonhardt asked his readers to choose an issue and really grapple with it. He pushed them to do the research and see if maybe any seeds of doubt on a subject could sprout.”
“… On Radio Times, host Marty Moss-Coane talked with Emile Bruneau, research associate and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communications, [and others] about the best ways to understand people whose opinions you do not share.” (Newsworks, May 23, 2017)
“Emile Bruneau recently invited Muslim students and staff at the University of Pennsylvania to help him figure out one of the most pressing questions of our time: How can we stop despising each other?” (Philly.com’s The Inquirer, April 3,2017) Full article here.
It is clear that Trump’s policies reflect a sea change in the American approach to national security — but do they “make Americans safe again?”
Our research suggests they could do exactly the opposite. By dehumanizing minority group members in word and deed, Trump’s rhetoric and policies may promote the very actions that they purport to prevent.
Using the lens of cognitive neuroscience, Emile Bruneau, PhD, discusses how and why our brains set our common sense interventions up to fail, how intuitively appealing goals such as empathy and trust can be deeply problematic, and how the tools of experimental psychology and functional neuroimaging (fMRI) can be employed to understand intergroup hostility and promote peace. (02/10/2016)
“What role does group identity play? Does authority make us passive or just reinforce our belief that we are right? How much of our empathy is innate and how much is instilled in us by our environment?
In the past two decades, with the advent of f.M.R.I. technology, neuroscientists also began to tackle such questions. Emile Bruneau […] is trying to map when and how our ability to empathize with one another break down, in hopes of finding a way to build it back up.” (NYT Magazine, March 19, 2015) Full article here.