humanising the de-humanised

A great article by John Watson in today’s Age, bouncing off the swine flu reactions into a conversation about stereotypes…

from the middle of the article:

The question, then, is why do the deaths of only some people from obscure diseases cause us to panic? And how can we be so unfeeling when we have the power to save the lives of millions by relatively simple, inexpensive precautions and treatments? The answer possibly lies in the profound hold that stereotypes have over our assessment of threats and our ability to empathise with others. Recent psychological research, including the mapping of brain activity, has established that stereotypes have a very powerful hold over us.

The world is a complex place, full of threats and opportunities. At its most primal level, we quickly need to make sense of these by sorting friend from foe. We are mentally wired to judge by appearances, to categorise on the basis of past experience or conditioning. On a very basic level, this means we almost instantly, automatically and unconsciously decide where people fit into our world. A New York Times article on stereotyping quotes assistant professor of psychology David Amodio, of New York University, as explaining: “People recruit stereotypes to kind of help them plan a world that’s consistent with the goal they might have.” Our brains rely on stereotypes because they can give us broadly accurate information, but even when contradictions arise we tend to ignore them and hold to the stereotype.

Princeton professor of psychology and neuroscience Susan Fiske offers an insight into why Australians couldn’t help but rally to the aid of homeless bushfire victims — “people like us” — while remaining strikingly indifferent to the 100,000 or so people who are homeless on any given night. Her research suggests that people of low status register differently in the brain. “The part of the brain that normally activates when you are thinking about people is surprisingly silent when you’re looking at homeless people. It’s a kind of neural dehumanisation.” The normal neural response is only restored, she said, when people are asked to think about what soup the homeless person might like to eat, which requires them to think about them as a person with human wants and needs. Similarly, when we are confronted by cases that break the conventions of the stereotype, such as the former executive who finds himself homeless, our empathy is engaged.

It all comes back to Mark again… humanising the dehumanised


  1. I had similar thoughts about the 9/11 event in 2001. It does seem that when we are potentially threatened we suddenly care more. Thanks for this. I’ve linked to it over on my blog.

  2. Hmmm this fits with my thoughts about the Bushfire victims and the homeless. But I wonder how much of this is also programmed by our culture and families and not just biology? I will also link to this from my own blog – hand to the plough! Thanks for digging this up.

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