Most theories suggest some people are willing to view stigmatized individuals, such as drug addicts, as less than human because believing people in these situations don’t have the capacity to think and feel like others makes it easier to marginalize them.
But research led by the University of Iowa has found another reason for dehumanizing outcasts: emotional exhaustion. People are more likely to deny a homeless drug addict human qualities when they believe that helping the person would be too overwhelming or emotionally exhausting, according to a set of studies.
However, when researchers suggested empathizing with such an individual would be emotionally inspiring and rewarding, participants changed their perspective.
“If you think empathy for this target will be exhausting, you show this dehumanizing effect,” says Daryl Cameron, assistant professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the UI and lead author of the study. “But if you think empathy is going to be inspiring and rewarding, dehumanization goes away. It’s not that they become more likely to humanize the stigmatized target, it’s just that the dehumanizing effect goes away.”
The study, “The Emotional Cost of Humanity: Anticipated Exhaustion Motivates Dehumanization of Stigmatized Targets,” appeared online and in the March issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.
Cameron says empathy is often a choice, one that his study shows can be manipulated based on how people want to feel.
“The point of the current studies is to show that even when people aren’t malicious or trying to justify immoral behavior, they may still dehumanize others if they’re worried about the emotional costs of helping,” he says. “I may not want to harm someone else, but if I think helping that person would be emotionally risky for me, I might still deny them mental states, engaging in dehumanization.”
The study involved two experiments. In the first, 173 participants were split into two groups and asked to read a vignette about an adult black male who was either homeless because of a drug addiction (a condition past studies have shown is highly stigmatized) or because of an uncontrollable illness. They were told he needed help with “everyday-type activities as well as support in getting ‘back on his feet.’”
Later in the experiment, participants were told they would be seeing a video of the homeless man’s appeal for help. The appeal was paired with the warning, “Based on an earlier pilot study, many participants suggest that the video you are about to see is emotionally intense and distressing.”
In the end, participants who read about the homeless drug addict (the stigmatized target) rated helping him more emotionally exhausting than those who were asked to rate helping a homeless man who had an uncontrollable illness. When it came to rating whether the men possessed a variety of traits, such as self-control, morality, fear, and pain, participants attributed fewer human traits to the drug addict than to the man who was ill. Researchers found that the increased anticipated exhaustion was part of the reason why participants attributed fewer human traits to the stigmatized target.
For the second experiment, researchers recruited 405 participants who were asked to read scenarios involving the same homeless man. This time, half the participants were told that empathy for the homeless man, whether he was a drug addict or ill, would be emotionally inspiring and rewarding; the other half were told that empathy for the man would be emotionally exhausting. Researchers found that by planting the seed of emotional reward, participants saw the homeless man, no matter whether he was a drug addict or ill, in a more human light.
Cameron says critics suggest empathy is biased in a lot of ways. The two most talked about are that empathy appears to be less sensitive to large-scale disasters than to a single identifiable victim and to out-groups versus in-groups.
For both reasons, he says, empathy is dismissed by many people as a biased emotion that can compromise sound moral judgment and policymaking.
“In both cases of empathy bias, my lab has evidence that changing what people want to feel can change whether these biases emerge,” Cameron says. “In other words, if we have choice and control for whom and when we feel empathy, and some of the biases can go away, and you can change some people’s beliefs and expectations, maybe these big-picture arguments against empathy are a bit hasty.”