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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Threat Rejection Fuels Political Dehumanization

Kubin, E., Kachanoff, F., & Gray, K. 
(2021, December 4).


Americans disagree about many things, including what threats are most pressing. We suggest people morally condemn and dehumanize opponents when they are perceived as rejecting the existence or severity of important perceived threats. We explore perceived “threat rejection” across five studies (N=2,404) both in the real-world COVID-19 pandemic and in novel contexts. Americans morally condemned and dehumanized policy opponents when they seemed to reject realistic group threats (e.g., threat to the physical health or resources of the group). Believing opponents rejected symbolic group threats (e.g., to collective identity) was not reliably linked to condemnation and dehumanization. Importantly, the political dehumanization caused by perceived threat rejection can be soothed with a “threat acknowledgement” intervention.

General Discussion 

Does perceived threat rejection sow political divisions? Results suggest perceiving the “other side” as rejecting realistic (more than symbolic) threat increases moral condemnation and dehumanization, lending support to the asymmetry hypothesis. DuringCOVID-19, those who relatively favored social distancing saw opponents as rejecting realistic threats and morally judged and dehumanized them. In contrast, support for social distancing did not reliably relate to perceiving the other side as rejecting symbolic threat—and symbolic threat was not robustly associated with moral judgment or dehumanization.

Within a novel threat context, people who were more willing to sacrifice their group’s culture to prevent realistic threats to health or resources viewed opponents as rejecting realistic threats and in turn morally condemned and dehumanized them. Similarly, people who were more willing to endure realistic threat to protect their culture, viewed opponents as rejecting symbolic threats, in turn morally condemning and dehumanizing them, yet these effects were significantly weaker than for realistic threat rejection. Our findings are consistent with research suggesting people condemn behaviors which are perceived as causing concrete (realistic) harm rather than abstract (symbolic) harm (Schein & Gray 2018).

Using a threat-acknowledgement-intervention, we decreased the tendency of people who tended to prioritize protecting the group from realistic threat (i.e., those who tended to support social distancing)to morally judge and dehumanize opponents who prioritized protecting the group from symbolic threat (i.e., those who tended to resist social distancing). Our intervention did not require opponents to compromise their stance –this intervention worked by simply having opponents acknowledge both realistic and symbolic threats when providing a rationale for their position. 

Note: Helpful research when working with politically intense patients who frequently bring in partisan information to discuss in psychotherapy.