The Psychology of Belief, Part 4: Infrahumanization

If you've been reading along in the series you've probably felt on the margins. That is, you've probably felt that my concerns about religious conviction and religiously motivated violence do not apply to you. And they don't. Or at least I hope not.

But today I want to talk about a subtle form of violence, one that sits quietly in our hearts, unnoticed, and thus requires the ingenuity of psychologists to expose. I'm speaking of infrahumanization.


Infrahumanization occurs when we consider people to be a little less than fully human. Historically, this often occurs when one group of people comes to believe that another group of people don't possess some human quality such as intellect or moral sensibilities. Such infrahumans are human, from a biological perspective, but they are believed to lack some moral or psychological attribute to make them fully human, on par with the "superior" group. Slavery and genocide are supported by infrahumanization.

In America the classic case of infrahumanization is found in the first U.S. Constitution (Article 1. Section 2) where slaves were considered, for the purposes of the census, to be 3/5ths of a person.

Anthropologists have long noted that infrahumanization is a product of social psychology. Ingroup members are considered to be fully human. Outgroup members are infrahumans. As the famous anthropologist Levi-Strauss stated:
"Humankind ceases at the border of the tribe."

Given this dynamic, psychologists have begun to explore the mental dynamics of group psychology as it applies to infrahumanization. Much of this work has been done by the Belgium psychologist Jacques-Philippe Leyens.

Leyens and colleagues (see Leyens, J., Paladino, P.M., Rodriguez-Torres, R., Vaes, J., Demoulin, S., Rodriguez-Perez, A., & Gaunt, R. 2000. The emotional side of prejudice: The attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups. Personality and social psychology review, 4, 186-197.) have studied how normal persons, like you and me, attribute primary and secondary emotions to ingroup and outgroup members. To understand this, we need to back up and talk about emotions.

Psychologists, although there is some diversity on this, tend to recognize six primary and universal emotions. Think of it like the basic Crayola box of emotions. The Big Six are: Joy, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise (For more on this see Paul Ekman's book "Emotions Revealed." Ekman is a world expert on emotions.).

Secondary emotions are subtler shades of emotions, blends of the basic emotional "colors." Examples of secondary emotions include feelings such as affection, admiration, pride, conceit, nostalgia, remorse, and rancor. Compared to the primary emotions the secondary emotions are quintessentially human, they are felt to be more cognitive, moral, internally caused, and mature.

Generally speaking, then, primary emotions tend to be shared between humans and animals. By contrast, secondary emotions tend to be only seen in humans. Leyens et al. (2000) suggest this simple test to determine if the emotion is primary or secondary: "Would I apply this emotional term to an animal such as a rabbit or a fish?" We feel that we could surprise a fish or that a fish might be fearful. But we don't tend to think of fish being nostalgic.

Now back to infrahumanization. Across many studies, many conducted by Leyens, it has been demonstrated that while we easily attribute both primary and secondary emotions to ingroup members (my "tribe") we are much more reticent about attributing secondary emotions to outgroup members. Recall, the secondary emotions are quintessentially human. Thus, by being reluctant to admit that outgroup members share the same emotional suite as my ingroup companions, we essentially see the outgroup as infrahumans, something close to, but not fully, human.

This process is very subtle. It has been shown that we even have this tendency to infrahumanize people who speak a different language from our own: We see them just a slight bit less than human compared to those who speak our native tongue. Of course no one admits to this. Further, no one notices that this is actually occurring. But it does occur, as laboratory tests have shown.

In short, "tribes", by their very nature, are inhumane. That is, they set psychological wheels in motion which begin the slow process of infrahumanizing the outgroup. For most of us the effect is subtle, very subtle, and ingenious test are needed to detect it. But it's there.

So let's revisit Harris (see first post in this series). The vast majority of religious persons do not kill or harm others in the name of God. But religion does create a tribe, those of my church, denomination, or faith. And, as I've noted, tribes create infrahumans.

In short, what I'm suggesting is that all of us, due to our religious affiliations, are currently or have participated in a process--infrahumanization--that is behind acts such as slavery and genocide. True, our participation is minute, but religious faith can and does lead to infrahumanization. We might not be aware of it. We might not admit to it. But the dynamics are at work. That's the bad news.

There will be some good news. For now, since this post is depressing, let me just say that, by naming the dynamic and becoming aware of its working in our own minds, we can find a route to salvation past this obstacle. But we cannot get past this point in the road if we refuse to take a look into the psychological mirror. I just want to hold up the mirror. I think the self-examination and self-awareness is important and needs to be more widespread.

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3 thoughts on “The Psychology of Belief, Part 4: Infrahumanization”

  1. Richard, this is a GREAT article. I'm knee deep in a Social Psychology research assignment (graduate level) and your post on infrahumanisation is very helpful to me!
    My paper is on some social psych. research at my (Australian) university on Attitudes towards Indigenous Australians. Good simple definitions, which I needed, and a spot-on advice for all in your closing, re: 'taking a look in the psychological mirror.' I believe that us with an interest in theology, and grasping God and his universe, need checks and balances. That's why I study psychology - and a Theological Psychology (or Psychological Theology) is an excellent tool.
    After all, you can't see a blind spot on your face, until some source outside of you sends you the message: "Go into the bathroom - trust me, you need to check."
    We all need to check...

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