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Strong Social Bonds Promote Health, Belonging — and Torture

New research finds people who feel a strong connection with their social group are more likely to dehumanize outsiders.
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It was no surprise when a recent meta-study found people with strong social support networks tend to live longer, healthier lives. As the Mayo Clinic notes on its website, having close, lasting relationships strengthens one’s feelings of security, self-worth and sense of belonging.

But there appears to be a dark side to those life-enhancing bonds. Newly published research suggests they may make it more likely you’ll view those outside your social group as less than human —and treat them accordingly.

“Connecting with others brings individuals closer to each other, but moves them further from people from whom they are disconnected,” Adam Waytz of Northwestern University and Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “The most tightly knit groups — from military units to athletic teams — may also be the most likely to treat their adversaries as subhuman animals.”

Waytz and Epley are scholars of dehumanization — the tendency for people to think of others as somehow less than fully human. It is at the root of racism (consider the well-documented tendency of many white people to think of blacks as ape-like), and it provides internally permission for both crimes (such as the taking of innocent lives during wartime) and misdemeanors (ignoring the homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk).

The researchers argue that “feeling socially connected to others may enable people to represent more distant others as subhuman.” Since their need for social contact has been satiated, such people are less motivated to consider the “interests, attitudes, feelings and preferences” of those outside the group — commonalities that reinforce our shared humanity.

“Being socially connected not only diminishes the motivation to connect with others, but may also diminish the perceived similarity with more distant others,” they add, “because social connections delineate those within one’s social circle and those outside of it.”

In other words, people tend to identify with their fellow group members, meaning they’re more likely to perceive outsiders as different. And as earlier research has shown, when people are viewed as dissimilar to ourselves, “they are evaluated as less humanlike as well.”

That may sound like a leap, but Waytz and Epley describe four experiments that back up their thesis. In one of them, 35 members of the University of Chicago community completed a “moral disengagement scale,” which included four statements indicating dehumanization. Specifically, they were asked their level of agreement with such propositions as “Some people deserve to be treated like animals.”

Before completing this survey, half of the participants were instructed to “think about going back home to attend a big family Thanksgiving dinner” and discuss the person at the gathering they feel closest to. The other half were told to “think about walking around Hyde Park to do some shopping” and describe shops and restaurants they patronize routinely.

Those who had contemplated someone close to them scored higher on dehumanization than those who had discussed their everyday shopping chores. “These results suggest social connection increases dehumanization specifically,” the researchers write.

If you consider the opinion “some people deserve to be treated like animals” too theoretical to be truly predictive of someone’s behavior, consider another of their experiments. Fifty-nine Chicagoans took part in what they were told was a study of attitudes. Half were instructed to attend with a friend, the others arrived alone.

“Those who arrived with a friend were assigned to the ‘connected’ condition,” the researchers write. They completed the experiment while sitting in a room with their friend (who could not see or influence them). The others were joined in the room by another test participant they didn’t know.

All were presented with 11 photos of men described as terrorists responsible for planning the 9/11 attacks. They then completed the aforementioned moral disengagement scale and answered a series of specific questions, including the degree to which they found acceptable such torture techniques as waterboarding and the application of electrical shocks.

Those who filled out the test with a friend in the room “dehumanized the detainees significantly more” than those who came alone, “and were also significantly more willing to endorse harming them,” Waytz and Epley report.

The researchers do not believe closeness to our own confederates means we automatically feel antipathy toward those outside our group. It’s just that we are more likely to think of them in abstract terms. Rather than individuals with specific needs and wants, they’re lazily lumped together as outsiders. This makes it easier to dehumanize them — and act accordingly.

“Being socially connected to close others has great benefits for one’s own physical and mental health,” the researchers conclude, “but it also satiates the motivation to connect with others.” With that urge satisfied, we’re prone to not give enough time or thought to those outside our social sphere to fully grasp their humanity. As this provocative research suggests, that can be a dangerous thing.

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