The Neuroscience of Dehumanisation, with Lasana Harris

We associate ‘Dehumanisation’ with the worst of human behaviour - genocide, torture, slavery. Social Neuroscientist Lasana Harris shows that dehumanisation is a process we use every day - which is what makes it so powerful and so dangerous.

S2 E20: The Neuroscience of Dehumanisation

“Dehumanisation is a psychological process, and every psychological process can be used for good or bad.”

Humanisation (attributing motive and consciousness) and dehumanisation are flip sides of common cognitive processes, what Harris calls “Flexible Social Cognition”, which he has measured via fMRI scans.

“I think of dehumanization much more as an everyday psychological phenomenon”

Neurologically, dehumanisation is the ability to regulate one’s own social cognition. We grant more ‘humanity’ to our friends than the bad driver in front of us. And in certain professional contexts, dehumanising is a good thing: to small degrees, doctors do it their patients better to treat them.

But thinking of dehumanisation as a scale provides a new frame through which to look at sexual objectification and the commoditisation of labour, all the way through to the Holocaust and the Slave Trade.

Because while dehumanisation isn’t the cause of atrocities, it is always used to justify them.

“Emotions like anger and fear are much more energising when it comes to committing these human atrocities. What dehumanisation does is it allows you to justify why the behaviour has occurred…”

Listen to Lasana explain:

  • Theory of Mind
  • Social Neuroscience
  • The role of Stereotypes in cognition
  • The Evolutionary reasons for “Flexible Social Cognition”
  • And how we can fight Dehumanisation - societally, and as individuals.

“We need to re-engineer our social systems”

Works cited include:

Read the Full Transcript

Lasana Harris

Dr Lasana Harris is Senior Lecturer in Social Cognition at UCL. Lasana’s research focuses on social, legal and economic decision making and how thinking about what other people are thinking affects those types of decisions. His work explores dehumanisaton, how people fail to consider other people’s minds, and anthropomorphism, extending minds to things that don’t have them.

On Opinion is a member of The Democracy Group, a network of podcasts that examines what’s broken in our democracy and how we can work together to fix it.

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This page was last edited on Tuesday, 25 May 2021 at 14:07 UTC