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Sunday, September 4, 2022

Reducing Explicit Blatant Dehumanization by Correcting Exaggerated Meta-Perceptions

Landry, A. P., Schooler, J. W., Willer, R., 
& Seli, P. (2022). 
Social Psychological and Personality Science.


If explicitly, blatantly dehumanizing a group of people—overtly characterizing them as less than human—facilitates harming them, then reversing this process is paramount. Addressing dehumanization among American political partisans appears especially crucial, given that it has been linked to their anti-democratic hostility. Perhaps because of its overt nature, partisans recognize—and greatly exaggerate—the extent to which out-partisans explicitly, blatantly dehumanize them. Past research has found that when people perceive they are dehumanized by an outgroup (i.e., meta-dehumanization), they respond with reciprocal dehumanization. Therefore, we reasoned that partisans’ dehumanization could be reduced by correcting their exaggerated meta-dehumanization. Indeed, across three preregistered studies (N = 4,154), an intervention correcting American partisans’ exaggerated meta-dehumanization reduced their own dehumanization of out-partisans. This decreased dehumanization persisted at a 1-week follow-up and predicted downstream reductions in partisans’ anti-democratic hostility, suggesting that correcting exaggerated meta-dehumanization can durably mitigate the dark specter of dehumanization.


Explicit blatant dehumanization continues to mar contemporary intergroup relations (Kteily & Landry, 2022). For instance, a troubling number of American partisans explicitly, blatantly dehumanize one another, which has been linked to their anti-democratic hostility (e.g., Moore-Berg et al., 2020). We sought to reduce partisan dehumanization by integrating research demonstrating that (a) individuals who think an outgroup dehumanizes their own group (i.e., meta-dehumanization) respond with reciprocal dehumanization (Kteily et al., 2016; Landry, Ihm & Schooler, 2022) and (b) individuals attribute overly-negative attitudes to outgroup members (Lees & Cikara, 2021). We developed an intervention informing American partisans of their tendency to overestimate how much they are dehumanized by out-partisans (Landry, Ihm, Kwit & Schooler, 2021; Moore-Berg et al., 2020). This reduced partisans’ own dehumanization of out-partisans across three studies–an effect that persisted at a 1-week follow-up.

Correcting partisans’ meta-dehumanization also produced modest—yet reliable—reductions in their anti-democratic hostility. This is notable given recent work finding that interventions reducing negative affect do not influence anti-democratic attitudes (Broockman et al., 2020; Voelkel et al., 2021). Perhaps our dehumanization-focused intervention reduced anti-democratic attitudes when affect-focused interventions did not because dehumanization is more strongly linked to anti-democratic attitudes. Indeed, we observed particularly strong indirect effects of the intervention on reduced anti-democratic spite through dehumanization (average ╬▓indirect = −.23, compared to an average ╬▓indirect = −.03 for negative affect; see also Landry, Ihm & Schooler, 2022). Although experimental tests of mediation are needed to confirm this cross-sectional indirect effect, future work attempting to bolster support for democratic norms should consider the promise of targeting dehumanization.