Human, or Less than Human?

There are several reasons why people might think they have more Human Nature attributes than other people. Human Nature attributes, such as emotional traits, tend to be somewhat private, and hence less visible in others than in the self. Because Human Nature attributes are seen as typical of humans we may attribute them to ourselves because we believe we are particularly good examples of our species, or because we do not wish to seem deviant. We have found some support for these ideas, and for the idea that Human Nature traits convey a sense of depth about the person, and we tend to see other people as shallower than ourselves.

There is another fascinating explanation for self-humanizing which came up after an unexpected discovery in our research. In a number of studies, we found that people self-humanize undesirable traits more than desirable traits. That is, we see our own flaws as more human than other people’s flaws. When faced with our imperfections we may be motivated to see them as human. As Eminem confesses in Cleanin’ out my closet, "I maybe made some mistakes … but I’m only human". On this view, self-humanizing acts as a self-protective coping mechanism, allowing us to deal with evidence of our weaknesses and failings by seeing them as part of human nature. Seen in this way, our flaws are not ours alone: they are universal and part of our fundamental nature. Jan Werich , the Czechoslovak actor and satirist, expressed this eloquently when he said that "people would not be people if they had no flaws." If humans are inherently flawed, then one’s own human flaws are excusable.


Our work suggests that humanness plays an important role in social perception; not only in how we perceive groups but also how we see other individuals and ourselves. It is not a simple concept, but it does appear to be tractable when we pay attention to the different ways people understand it. Our two dimensions offer a relatively simple framework for understanding how it is possible to see some people as being less fully human – or more nonhuman – than others. The consequences of these perceptions, whether they involve blatant dehumanization or subtle excuses for our failings, are likely to be wide-ranging and significant. Our laboratory-based research has yet to explore these consequences in realistic settings, and that is a challenge for future work.


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