“I love humanity but I hate people”
Edna St. Vincent Millay (American poet and playwright).
Psychology hasn’t paid enough attention to the regard people have towards humanity – their “humanity-esteem”. That’s according to Michelle Luke and Gregory Maio whose new research suggests a person’s view of humanity can have important social implications, for example affecting their proclivity for racism. If we think highly of humankind, it follows that we’re less likely to have a negative attitude to other ethnic groups – after all, they’re human too.
In an initial study, the researchers devised a new 10-item psychology questionnaire (featuring items like “On the whole I am satisfied with the evolution of humanity”) and a single-item, 9-point scale version (“Overall, how favourable are you toward human beings in general?”). The researchers confirmed, with the help of hundreds of student participants, that humanity-esteem is a unidimensional construct and that it is related to, but not completely explained by, a person’s feelings towards and beliefs about people, such as whether they tend to be trustworthy or not.
In further investigations, the researchers showed that people’s humanity-esteem can be influenced by presenting them with images casting humankind in a positive light (e.g. a child kissing an older relative, with a strap-line celebrating the benefit of families) or in a negative light (e.g. a Palestinian man carrying a dying boy, with a strap-line blaming unrest for innocent deaths).
Moreover, increasing people’s humanity-esteem with positive images was found to reduce their subsequent tendency to differentiate between groups, whilst negative images had the opposite effect. This has real-world implications, the researchers warned. “Because the media often emphasises the negative side of human nature, it may have a negative influence on humanity-esteem and increase problems of discrimination. Awareness of this potential effect should enter discussions of the ways in which events are covered.” Luke and Maio end their paper with a call for more research on this topic. “Evaluations of humanity merit far more attention than they have received,” they said.
LUKE, M.L., & MAIO, G.R. (2009). Oh the humanity! Humanity-esteem and its social importance. Journal of Research in Personality, 43 (4), 586-601 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2009.03.001