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Another Reason to Not Call People 'Animals'

New research suggests those who internalize the insult are more likely to act in unethical ways.
President Donald Trump speaks during a Greek Independence Day celebration in the East Room of the White House

When President Donald Trump recently condemned foreign-born gang members—and, by inference, undocumented immigrants in general—as "animals," he was rightly condemned. Throughout history, this sort of dehumanization has given people tacit approval to act with otherwise unthinkable cruelty.

But what effect does such a label have on the people being denigrated? New research presents a disturbing answer.

It reports people who are manipulated into thinking themselves as less than human are more likely to behave in unscrupulous ways.

"Many may believe that making a prisoner or a criminal feel inhuman is necessary to punish them, or motivate them to improve," writes a research team led by Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University. In fact, "this dehumanization might cause them to disconnect from morality as a fundamental facet of humanity."

In the journal Psychological Science, the researchers describe a series of studies that suggest acting unethically can lead people to view themselves as less human—and such "self-dehumanization" can inspire still more dishonesty.

One featured 150 participants recruited online. Half began by writing about their morning routine, while the others were asked to consider, and write about, "a situation when they did not feel like themselves, with full capabilities as a human being." They were told this might involve times when they felt incapable making plans, exercising self-control, or remembering things well.

All were then given two minutes to unscramble four anagrams for a cash reward (25 cents for each word). When time expired, they reported how many they had successfully completed and were paid accordingly. One of the anagrams was unsolvable, so those who claimed a clean sweep were clearly lying.

The researchers report nearly half—46.6 percent—of those who had mused about being less than human claimed they had completed all four. Among those who had thought about their morning routine, only 28.6 percent made the false assertion.

A follow-up study featured 160 participants, who also performed one of the two aforementioned writing exercises. They were then presented with two tasks, with one that took considerably more time and effort than the other. They were instructed to choose one for themselves, and assign the other to an anonymous participant they were randomly paired with.

Among those who had written about their morning routine, nearly three-quarters assigned the tougher task to the other person. But among those who had pondered the idea that they were less than human, that number shot up to 89 percent.

"Our work suggests that people who face dehumanization, and internalize it (such as prisoners and the homeless) may continue down a path of immoral behavior," Kouchaki and her colleagues conclude. This suggests a need for "rehabilitative programs that emphasize restoration of one's feelings of humanity."

Somehow one doubts that will be a priority of the Trump administration. But while Trump may be setting off a destructive spiral with his crude choice of words, the researchers caution that leftists also sometimes use dehumanizing language—calling Wall Street bankers leeches, for example.

"Such depictions might lead these groups to internalize (an animalistic self-image)," they warn, "which may reinforce a path of immoral behavior, rather than motivate them to correct course."

The bottom line: Don't label someone an animal unless you're willing to live with the potential consequences.