‘How can you not feel sorry about people who have died? I mean you would be inhuman if you didn’t think that,’ former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair speaking to Andrew Marr on the BBC.
Think how terrible you’d feel if a decision you made led to the death of another person. How then does a political leader cope with the burden of making decisions which lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands? According to a new journal article, they cope through dehumanising those over whom they have power. By this account, dehumanising – seeing others as less than human – isn’t always a bad thing. It serves a function, allowing leaders and certain professionals, such as doctors, to cope with the decisions they have to make.
Joris Lammers and Diederik Stapel had 102 student participants complete a measure of their sense of power (including items like ‘to what degree does your opinion typically affect other people’s opinions?’). Afterwards they were asked to read about a fictional, poor, South-American-sounding country called Aurelia and rate its inhabitants. Those who scored more highly on the power scale subsequently showed more evidence of dehumanising the inhabitants of Aurelia – for example, rating them as less civilised and more childish.
Next, the researchers primed some student participants to feel more powerful by having them write about an occasion when they had had power over an another person or persons. Those primed this way were subsequently more likely than controls (who wrote about a supermarket visit) to say they would back a plan to move Aurelians living in slums to an undeveloped part of their country, against their will if necessary. What’s more, the participants primed to feel powerful were more likely to show evidence of dehumanising the Aurelians when asked to rate them on factors like civility and childishness – an association largely mediated by their decision about the planned eviction.
In a final study, Lammers and Stapel had 50 student participants role-play the position of senior surgeon, junior surgeon or nurse before making a treatment decision about their fictional patient – a 56-year-old man with an abdominal growth. Those participants role-playing a more powerful position were more likely to opt for the painful but more effective of two treatment options. Moreover, the participants role-playing the senior surgeon role were more likely to show evidence of dehumanising the patient in a ‘mechanistic’ fashion – that is, rating him as more passive and less sensitive. The association between seniority of role and dehumanising was largely mediated by the decision to opt for the more painful treatment.
‘By treating other people as objects or tools, the emotional consequences of the powerful people’s actions are downplayed and become irrelevant,’ the researchers said. ‘Although this can lead people to abuse others, it may also facilitate the powerful in making tough decisions. … Without dehumanising they would be overcome by the pain and suffering that result from their decisions.’
Lammeres and Stapel acknowledge, however, that the link between power and dehumanising wasn’t entirely mediated by the making of tough decisions. ‘We interpret this as evidence that power can also increase dehumanisation for reasons other than to justify decisions,’ they said, before adding that more research is needed to explore what these other factors are.
Lammers, J., and Stapel, D. (2010). Power increases dehumanization. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations DOI: 10.1177/1368430210370042