Human, or Less than Human?

Humanness in Group Perception

The relevance of this simple model to social perception, and in particular how some people can be seen as less human than others, should be obvious. Humanness may be a particularly important concept in the perception of groups. Research by Leyens and colleagues (Leyens et al., 2003) shows that people often perceive members of outgroups (“them”) as less human than members of their ingroup (“us”). They demonstrate this bias by showing that people are reluctant to attribute uniquely human emotions (e.g., nostalgia, embarrassment, admiration) to outgroup members compared to ingroup members, but attribute emotions that we share with other animals (e.g., happiness, fear, anger) to ingroup and outgroup equally. This subtle tendency to see other groups as less human – which is called “infrahumanization” – is distinct from the tendency to prefer our ingroup or derogate outgroups (i.e., ingroup favoritism or ethnocentrism; see van Zomeren, 2008 )), and it even occurs when there is no conflict between groups. It clearly rests on humanness in the Human Uniqueness sense, and implies that outgroup members are seen as more animal-like than ingroup members.


Perceiving other groups as less human than our own can also be demonstrated using the Human Nature sense of humanness, and attributes other than emotions. For example, in unpublished studies conducted by Paul Bain , participants attributed more Human Nature personality traits or values to their national ingroup (Australians) than to a variety of outgroups (British, Indonesians, Japanese, Singaporeans). In other studies from our laboratory, white Australians saw themselves as having more Human Nature traits than Asian Australians, and psychology students rated their ingroup higher on Human Nature traits than medical students. Even when ingroup and outgroup are represented in the simplest and most content-free stimuli – by words such as "we" and "us" versus "they" and "them" – participants associated Human Nature traits with the ingroup more strongly than with the outgroup. This association between the ingroup and humanness appears to be largely unconscious, and it can be demonstrated using computer-based experimental tasks that assess people’s rapid and automatic responses to groups.

Infrahumanization-like findings involving the Human Uniqueness sense of humanness can also be observed with personality traits. We have found that white Australians attribute more Human Uniqueness traits to themselves than to indigenous people, and Asian Australians attribute more Human Uniqueness traits to themselves than to white Australians. These findings imply that Human Nature and Human Uniqueness are both meaningful dimensions along which group members subtly deny the humanness of other groups. Some outgroups are seen as lacking emotion and warmth and implicitly likened to objects or robots , and others are seen as lacking rationality and refinement and implicitly likened to animals.

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