A Brain’s Failure to Appreciate Others May Permit Human Atrocities
A father in Louisiana bludgeoned and beheaded his disabled 7-year-old son last August because he no longer wanted to care for the boy.
For most people, such a heinous act is unconscionable.
But it may be that a person can become callous enough to commit human atrocities because of a failure in the part of the brain that’s critical for social interaction. A new study by researchers at Duke University and Princeton University suggests this function may disengage when people encounter others they consider disgusting, thus “dehumanizing” their victims by failing to acknowledge they have thoughts and feelings.
This shortcoming also may help explain how propaganda depicting Tutsi in Rwanda as cockroaches and Hitler’s classification of Jews in Nazi Germany as vermin contributed to torture and genocide, the study said.
“When we encounter a person, we usually infer something about their minds. Sometimes, we fail to do this, opening up the possibility that we do not perceive the person as fully human,” said lead author Lasana Harris, an assistant professor in Duke University’s Department of Psychology & Neuroscience and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Harris co-authored the study with Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.
Social neuroscience has shown through MRI studies that people normally activate a network in the brain related to social cognition — thoughts, feelings, empathy, for example — when viewing pictures of others or thinking about their thoughts. But when participants in this study were asked to consider images of people they considered drug addicts, homeless people, and others they deemed low on the social ladder, parts of this network failed to engage.
What’s especially striking, the researchers said, is that people will easily ascribe social cognition — a belief in an internal life such as emotions — to animals and cars, but will avoid making eye contact with the homeless panhandler in the subway.
“We need to think about other people’s experience,” Fiske said. “It’s what makes them fully human to us.”