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Lynndie England pulls a leash attached to the neck of a prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison, who is forced to crawl on the floor, while Megan Ambuhl watches.
In his report on the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, Jürgen Stroop described Jews resisting deportation to death camps as "bandits".

Dehumanization is the denial of full humanness in others and the cruelty and suffering that accompanies it.[1][2][3] A practical definition refers to it as the viewing and treatment of other persons as though they lack the mental capacities that are commonly attributed to human beings.[4] In this definition, every act or thought that regards a person as "less than" human is dehumanization.[5]

Dehumanization is one technique in incitement to genocide.[6] It has also been used to justify war, judicial and extrajudicial killing, slavery, the confiscation of property, denial of suffrage and other rights, and to attack enemies or political opponents.


Behaviorally, dehumanization describes a disposition towards others that debases the others' individuality as either an "individual" species or an "individual" object (e.g., someone who acts inhumanely towards humans). As a process, dehumanization may be understood as the opposite of personification, a figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstractions are endowed with human qualities; dehumanization then is the disendowment of these same qualities or a reduction to abstraction.[citation needed]

In almost all contexts, dehumanization is used pejoratively along with a disruption of social norms, with the former applying to the actor(s) of behavioral dehumanization and the latter applying to the action(s) or processes of dehumanization. For instance, there is dehumanization for those who are perceived as lacking in culture or civility, which are concepts that are believed to distinguish humans from animals.[7] Social norms define humane behavior and reflexively define what is outside of humane behavior or inhumane. Dehumanization differs from inhumane behaviors or processes in its breadth to propose competing social norms. It is an action of dehumanization as the old norms are depreciated to the competing new norms, which then redefine the action of dehumanization. If the new norms lose acceptance, then the action remains one of dehumanization. The definition of dehumanization remains in a reflexive state of a type-token ambiguity relative to both individual and societal scales.

Two Japanese officers in occupied China competing to see who could kill (with a sword) one hundred people first.

In biological terms, dehumanization can be described as an introduced species marginalizing the human species, or an introduced person/process that debases other persons inhumanely.[citation needed]

In political science and jurisprudence, the act of dehumanization is the inferential alienation of human rights or denaturalization of natural rights, a definition contingent upon presiding international law rather than social norms limited by human geography. In this context, a specialty within species does not need to constitute global citizenship or its inalienable rights; the human genome inherits both.

It is theorized[by whom?] that dehumanization takes on two forms: animalistic dehumanization, which is employed on a mostly intergroup basis; and mechanistic dehumanization, which is employed on a mostly interpersonal basis.[8] Dehumanization can occur discursively (e.g., idiomatic language that likens individual human beings to non-human animals, verbal abuse, erasing one's voice from discourse), symbolically (e.g., imagery), or physically (e.g., chattel slavery, physical abuse, refusing eye contact). Dehumanization often ignores the target's individuality (i.e., the creative and exciting aspects of their personality) and can hinder one from feeling empathy or correctly understanding a stigmatized group.[9]

Dehumanization may be carried out by a social institution (such as a state, school, or family), interpersonally, or even within oneself. Dehumanization can be unintentional, especially upon individuals, as with some types of de facto racism. State-organized dehumanization has historically been directed against perceived political, racial, ethnic, national, or religious minority groups. Other minoritized and marginalized individuals and groups (based on sexual orientation, gender, disability, class, or some other organizing principle) are also susceptible to various forms of dehumanization. The concept of dehumanization has received empirical attention in the psychological literature.[10][11] It is conceptually related to infrahumanization,[12] delegitimization,[13] moral exclusion,[14] and objectification.[15] Dehumanization occurs across several domains; it is facilitated by status, power, and social connection; and results in behaviors like exclusion, violence, and support for violence against others.

"Dehumanisation is viewed as a central component to intergroup violence because it is frequently the most important precursor to moral exclusion, the process by which stigmatized groups are placed outside the boundary in which moral values, rules, and considerations of fairness apply."[16]

David Livingstone Smith, director and founder of The Human Nature Project at the University of New England, argues that historically, human beings have been dehumanizing one another for thousands of years.[17] In his work "The Paradoxes of Dehumanization", Smith proposes that dehumanization simultaneously regards people as human and subhuman. This paradox comes to light, as Smith identifies, because the reason people are dehumanized is so their human attributes can be taken advantage of.[18]


In Herbert Kelman's work on dehumanization, humanness has two features: "identity" (i.e., a perception of the person "as an individual, independent and distinguishable from others, capable of making choices") and "community" (i.e., a perception of the person as "part of an interconnected network of individuals who care for each other"). When a target's agency and embeddedness in a community are denied, they no longer elicit compassion or other moral responses and may suffer violence.[19]

Objectification of women[edit]

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts argued that the sexual objectification of women extends beyond pornography (which emphasizes women's bodies over their uniquely human mental and emotional characteristics) to society generally. There is a normative emphasis on female appearance that causes women to take a third-person perspective on their bodies.[20] The psychological distance women may feel from their bodies might cause them to dehumanize themselves. Some research has indicated that women and men exhibit a "sexual body part recognition bias", in which women's sexual body parts are better recognized when presented in isolation than in their entire bodies. In contrast, men's sexual body parts are better recognized in the context of their entire bodies than in isolation.[21] Men who dehumanize women as either animals or objects are more liable to rape and sexually harass women and display more negative attitudes toward female rape victims.[22]

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum identified seven components of objectification: instrumentality, denial of autonomy, inertness, fungibility, violability, ownership, and denial of subjectivity.[23][further explanation needed]


Ota Benga, a human exhibit in Bronx Zoo, 1906

Colonialization in the Americas[edit]

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s book on civil rights, Why We Can't Wait, he explains, "Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race."[24]

Mi'kmaq elder and human rights activist Daniel N. Paul has researched and written extensively on historical accounts of acts of violence against First Nations peoples in North America. His work states that European colonialism in North America was a subjugation of the indigenous peoples and a series of crimes. Tens of millions indigenous peoples died at the hands of European invaders. Those hundreds of diverse civilizations and communities who thrived across North America thousands of years before the exploits of Christopher Columbus were decimated. According to him, the colonists performed ethnic cleansing, one of the most frequent was the practice of bounty hunting and scalping—where colonial conquerors would raid communities and remove the scalps of children and adults.[25][unbalanced opinion?]

Causes and facilitating factors[edit]

Reproduction of a handbill advertising a slave auction, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1769.

Several lines of psychological research relate to the concept of dehumanization. Infrahumanization suggests that individuals think of and treat outgroup members as "less human" and more like animals;[12] while Australian ethnologist Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt uses the term pseudo-speciation, a term that he borrowed from the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, to imply that the dehumanized person or persons are regarded as not members of the human species.[26] Specifically, individuals associate secondary emotions (which are seen as uniquely human) more with the ingroup than with the outgroup. Primary emotions (those experienced by all sentient beings, whether human or other animals) are found to be more associated with the outgroup.[12] Dehumanization is intrinsically connected with violence.[citation needed] Often, one cannot do serious injury to another without first dehumanizing him or her in one's mind (as a form of rationalization.)[citation needed] Military training is, among other things, systematic desensitization and dehumanization of the enemy, and servicemen and women may find it psychologically necessary to refer to the enemy as an animal or other non-human beings. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman has shown that it would be difficult without such desensitization, if not impossible, to kill another human, even in combat or under threat to their own lives.[27]

According to Daniel Bar-Tal, delegitimization is the "categorization of groups into extreme negative social categories which are excluded from human groups that are considered as acting within the limits of acceptable norms and values".[13]

Moral exclusion occurs when outgroups are subject to a different set of moral values, rules, and fairness than are used in social relations with ingroup members.[14] When individuals dehumanize others, they no longer experience distress when they treat them poorly. Moral exclusion is used to explain extreme behaviors like genocide, harsh immigration policies, and eugenics, but it can also happen on a more regular, everyday discriminatory level. In laboratory studies, people who are portrayed as lacking human qualities are treated in a particularly harsh and violent manner.[28][29][30][clarification needed]

Dehumanized perception occurs when a subject experiences low frequencies of activation within their social cognition neural network.[31] This includes areas of neural networking such as the superior temporal sulcus (STS) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC).[32] A 2001 study by psychologists Chris and Uta Frith suggests that the criticality of social interaction within a neural network has tendencies for subjects to dehumanize those seen as disgust-inducing, leading to social disengagement.[33] Tasks involving social cognition typically activate the neural network responsible for subjective projections of disgust-inducing perceptions and patterns of dehumanization. "Besides manipulations of target persons, manipulations of social goals validate this prediction: Inferring preference, a mental-state inference, significantly increases mPFC and STS activity to these otherwise dehumanized targets."[who said this?][34] A 2007 study by Harris, McClure, van den Bos, Cohen and Fiske suggests a subject's mental reliability towards dehumanizing social cognition due to decreased neural activity towards the projected target, replicating across stimuli and contexts.[incomprehensible][35]

While social distance from the outgroup target is a necessary condition for dehumanization, some research suggests that this alone is insufficient. Psychological research has identified high status, power, and social connection as additional factors. Members of high-status groups more often associate humanity with the ingroup than the outgroup, while members of low-status groups exhibit no differences in associations with humanity. Thus, having a high status makes one more likely to dehumanize others.[36] Low-status groups are more associated with human nature traits (e.g., warmth, emotionalism) than uniquely human characteristics, implying that they are closer to animals than humans because these traits are typical of humans but can be seen in other species.[37] In addition, another line of work found that individuals in a position of power were more likely to objectify their subordinates, treating them as a means to one's end rather than focusing on their essentially human qualities.[38] Finally, social connection—thinking about a close other or being in the actual presence of a close other—enables dehumanization by reducing the attribution of human mental states, increasing support for treating targets like animals, and increasing willingness to endorse harsh interrogation tactics.[39] This is counterintuitive because social connection has documented personal health and well-being benefits but appears to impair intergroup relations.

Neuroimaging studies have discovered that the medial prefrontal cortex—a brain region distinctively involved in attributing mental states to others—shows diminished activation to extremely dehumanized targets (i.e., those rated, according to the stereotype content model, as low-warmth and low-competence, such as drug addicts or homeless people).[40][41]

Race and ethnicity[edit]

US government propaganda poster from WWII featuring a Japanese soldier depicted as a rat

Dehumanization often occurs as a result of intergroup conflict. Ethnic and racial others are often represented as animals in popular culture and scholarship. There is evidence that this representation persists in the American context with African Americans implicitly associated with apes. To the extent that an individual has this dehumanizing implicit association, they are more likely to support violence against African Americans (e.g., jury decisions to execute defendants).[42] Historically, dehumanization is frequently connected to genocidal conflicts in that ideologies before and during the conflict depict victims as subhuman (e.g., rodents).[8] Immigrants may also be dehumanized in this manner.[43]

In the 1900s, the Australian Constitution and British Government partook in an Act to federate the Australian states. Section 51 (xxvi) excluded Aboriginals from the groups protected by special laws, and section 127 excluded Aboriginals from population counts. The Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 categorically denied Aboriginals the right to vote. Indigenous Australians were not allowed the social security benefits (e.g., aged pensions and maternity allowances) which were provided to others. Aboriginals in rural areas were discriminated against and controlled as to where and how they could marry, work, live, and their movements.[44]


Dehumanization and dehumanized perception can occur as a result of the language used to describe groups of people. Words such as migrant, immigrant, and expatriate are assigned to foreigners based on their social status and wealth, rather than ability, achievements, or political alignment. Expatriate is a word to describe the privileged, often light-skinned people newly residing in an area and has connotations that suggest ability, wealth, and trust. Meanwhile, the word immigrant is used to describe people coming to a new location to reside and infers a much less-desirable meaning. Further, "immigrant" is a word that can be paired with "illegal," which harbors a profoundly negative connotation to those projecting social cognition towards the other. The perpetual misuse of these words used to describe the other in the English language can alter the perception of a group in a derogatory way. "Most of the time when we hear [illegal immigrant] used, most of the time, the shorter version 'illegals' is being used as a noun, which implies that a human being is perpetually illegal. There is no other classification that I'm aware of where the individual is being rendered as unlawful as opposed to those individuals' actions."[who said this?][45]

A series of language examinations found a direct relation between homophobic epithets and social cognitive distancing towards a group of homosexuals, a form of dehumanization. These epithets (e.g., faggot) were thought to function as dehumanizing labels because they tended to act as markers of deviance. One pair of studies found that subjects were more likely to associate malignant language with homosexuals, and that such language associations increased the physical distancing between the subject and the homosexual. This indicated that the malignant language could encourage dehumanization, cognitive and physical distancing in ways that other forms of malignant language do not.[46]

Human races[edit]

In the US, African Americans were dehumanized by being classified as non-human primates. The US Constitution held that enslaved Africans would be counted as three-fifths of a free person for purposes of federal representation and direct taxes. In the 1990s, reportedly California State Police classified incidents involving young men of African ancestry as no humans involved.[according to whom?] A California police officer who was also involved in the Rodney King beating described a dispute between an American Black couple as "something right out of Gorillas in the Mist".[47] Franz Boas and Charles Darwin hypothesized that there might be an evolutionary process among primates. Monkeys and apes were least evolved, then savage and deformed anthropoids, which referred to people of African ancestry, to Caucasians as most developed.[48]

Government-led dehumanization[edit]

Depiction of a slave auction in Ancient Rome. Anyone not a Roman citizen was subject to enslavement and was considered private property.

Sociologists and historians often view dehumanization as essential to war. Governments sometimes represent enemy civilians or soldiers as less than human so that voters will be more likely to support a war they may otherwise consider immoral.[citation needed] Dictatorships use the same process to prevent opposition by citizens. Such efforts often depend on pre-existing racist, sectarian, or otherwise biased beliefs, which governments play upon through various types of media, presenting "enemies" as barbaric, as undeserving of rights, and as threats to the nation. Alternatively, states sometimes present an opposing government or way of life as barbaric and its citizens as childlike and incapable of managing their own affairs. Such arguments have been used as a pretext for colonialism.[citation needed]

The Holocaust during World War II and the Rwandan genocide have both been cited as atrocities facilitated by a government-sanctioned dehumanization of its citizens. In terms of the Holocaust, government proliferated propaganda created a culture of dehumanization of the Jewish population. Crimes like lynching (especially in the United States) are often thought of as the result of popular bigotry and government apathy.[citation needed]

Anthropologists Ashley Montagu and Floyd Matson wrote that dehumanization might well be considered "the fifth horseman of the apocalypse" because of the inestimable damage it has dealt to societies.[49] When people become things, the logic follows, they become dispensable, and any atrocity can be justified.

Dehumanization can be seen outside of overtly violent conflicts, as in political debates where opponents are presented as collectively stupid or inherently evil. Such "good versus evil" claims help end substantive debate (see also: thought-terminating cliché).

Property takeover[edit]

The Spanish Inquisition would seize the property of those accused of heresy and use the profits to fund the accused's imprisonment, even before trial.

Several scholars have written on how dehumanization also occurs in the confiscation of property, where the government takes away individuals' property without just cause and compensation. In this context, Professor Bernadette Atuahene describes dehumanization as occurring when the government fails to recognize the humanity of an individual or group.[50][51] Through the use of racial slurs, disguised as mascots, coupled with the historical taking of Native American lands, dehumanization establishes dignity taking in the context of sports team trademarks, such as the Washington Redskins. Legal scholar Victoria Phillips relied on interview data to show that, despite the team's declared intent, most Native Americans find the use of the term redskins to be disrespectful and dehumanizing.[52] Phillips argues that the continued registration and use of the 'Redskins' trademark is an appropriation of the cultural identity and imagery of Native Americans that rises to the level of a dignity taking.

Regulatory property actions also dehumanize in the context of mobile trailer home parks. People who live in trailer parks are often dehumanized and colloquially referred to as trailer trash. The cause of this is that mobile park closings are increasingly common, and the expense of moving such homes often outweighs their value. University of Colorado Professor Esther Sullivan explores whether mass evictions spurred by park closings, even if legal, constitute a dignity taking.[53]

Legal scholar Lua Kamal Yuille examines whether gang injunctions qualify as dignity takings when the dehumanization occurs through prohibitions on certain clothing based on little more than suspicion of illegal activity or criminal associations.[54] Yuille investigated a gang injunction in Monrovia, California, which prohibits suspected gang members from engaging in a wide range of activities that would otherwise be legal. For example, they cannot wear "gang clothes" or carry "marking substances" like paint cans, pens, and other writing utensils that might be used for graffiti in public. Yuille argues that, although the state prevents suspected gang members from using particular property in public, this is only one small part of the taking. The more insidious yet invisible harm is the deprivation of identity property, which she defines as a property that implicates how people understand themselves. Additionally, Yuille argues that the state treats young gang members like superpredators instead of the children they are. Yuille concludes that Monrovia has subjected suspected gang members to a loss of dignity because dehumanization occurs alongside property deprivation.[54]

Media-driven dehumanization[edit]

The propaganda model of Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky argues that corporate media are able to carry out large-scale, successful dehumanization campaigns when they promote the goals (profit-making) that the corporations are contractually obliged to maximize.[55][56] State media are also capable of carrying out dehumanization campaigns, whether in democracies or dictatorships, which are pervasive enough that the population cannot avoid the dehumanizing memes.[55]

Non-state actors[edit]

Non-state actors—terrorists in particular—have also resorted to dehumanization to further their cause. The 1960s terrorist group Weather Underground had advocated violence against any authority figure and used the "police are pigs" meme to convince members that they were not harming human beings but merely killing wild animals. Likewise, rhetoric statements such as "terrorists are just scum," is an act of dehumanization.[57]

In science, medicine, and technology[edit]

Jewish twins kept alive in Auschwitz for use in Josef Mengele's medical experiments.

Relatively recent history has seen the relationship between dehumanization and science result in unethical scientific research. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment and Nazi human experimentation on Jewish people are two such examples. In the former, African Americans with syphilis were recruited to participate in a study about the course of the disease. Even when treatment and a cure were eventually developed, they were withheld from the African-American participants so that researchers could continue their study. Similarly, Nazi scientists conducted horrific experiments on Jewish people during the Holocaust. This was justified in the name of research and progress, which is indicative of the far-reaching effects that the culture of dehumanization had upon this society. When this research came to light, efforts were made to protect future research participants, and currently, institutional review boards exist to safeguard individuals from being exploited by scientists.

In a medical context, some dehumanizing practices have become more acceptable. While the dissection of human cadavers was seen as dehumanizing in the Dark Ages (see history of anatomy), the value of dissections as a training aid is such that they are now more widely accepted. Dehumanization has been associated with modern medicine generally and has explicitly been suggested as a coping mechanism for doctors who work with patients at the end of life.[8][58] Researchers have identified six potential causes of dehumanization in medicine: deindividuating practices, impaired patient agency, dissimilarity (causes which do not facilitate the delivery of medical treatment), mechanization, empathy reduction, and moral disengagement (which could be argued to facilitate the delivery of medical treatment).[59]

In some US states, controversial legislation requires that a woman view ultrasound images of her fetus before having an abortion. Critics of the law argue that merely seeing an image of the fetus humanizes it and biases women against abortion.[60] Similarly, a recent study showed that subtle humanization of medical patients appears to improve care for these patients. Radiologists evaluating X-rays reported more details to patients and expressed more empathy when a photo of the patient's face accompanied the X-rays.[61] It appears that the inclusion of the photos counteracts the dehumanization of the medical process.

Dehumanization has applications outside traditional social contexts. Anthropomorphism (i.e., perceiving in nonhuman entities, mental and physical capacities that reflect humans) is the inverse of dehumanization..[62] Waytz, Epley, and Cacioppo suggest that the inverse of the factors that facilitate dehumanization (e.g., high status, power, and social connection) should promote anthropomorphism. That is, a low status, socially disconnected person without power should be more likely to attribute human qualities to pets or inanimate objects than a high-status, high-power, socially connected person.

Researchers have found that engaging in violent video game play diminishes perceptions of both one's own humanity and the humanity of the players who are targets of the game violence.[63] While the players are dehumanized, the video game characters are often anthropomorphized.

Dehumanization has occurred historically under the pretense of "progress in the name of science." During the St. Louis World's fair in 1904, human zoos exhibited several natives from independent tribes worldwide, most notably a young Congolese man, Ota Benga. Benga's imprisonment was put on display as a public service showcasing "a degraded and degenerate race." During this period, religion was still the driving force behind many political and scientific activities. Because of this, eugenics was widely supported among the most notable US scientific communities, political figures, and industrial elites. After relocating to New York in 1906, public outcry led to the permanent ban and closure of human zoos in the United States.[64]

In art[edit]

Francisco Goya, famed Spanish painter and printmaker of the romantic period, often depicted subjectivity involving the atrocities of war and brutal violence conveying the process of dehumanization. In the romantic period of painting, martyrdom art was most often a means of deifying the oppressed and tormented, and it was common for Goya to depict evil personalities performing these unjust horrible acts. But it was revolutionary the way the painter broke this convention by dehumanizing these martyr figures. " would not know whom the painting depicts, so determinedly has Goya reduced his subjects from martyrs to meat".[65]

See also[edit]


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