Seeing human: Distinct and overlapping neural signatures associated with two forms of dehumanization

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Abstract

The process of dehumanization, or thinking of others as less than human, is a phenomenon with significant societal implications. According to Haslam's (2006) model, two concepts of humanness derive from comparing humans with either animals or machines: individuals may be dehumanized by likening them to either animals or machines, or humanized by emphasizing differences from animals or machines. Recent work in cognitive neuroscience emphasizes understanding cognitive processes in terms of interactions between distributed cortical networks. It has been found that reasoning about internal mental states is associated with activation of the default mode network (DMN) and deactivation of the task positive network (TPN); whereas reasoning about mechanical processes produces the opposite pattern. We conducted two neuroimaging studies. The first examined the neural bases of dehumanization and its relation to these two brain networks, using images and voice-over social narratives which either implicitly contrasted or implicitly likened humans to either animals or machines. The second study addressed a discrepancy between findings from the first study and prior work on the neural correlates of dehumanization: using a design similar to prior work we examined neural responses to pictures of humans, animals and machines, presented without any social context. In both studies, human and humanizing conditions were associated with relatively high activity in the DMN and relatively low activity in the TPN. However, the non-human and dehumanizing conditions deviated in different ways: they demonstrated more marked changes either in the DMN or in the TPN. Notably, differences between the animal dehumanizing and humanizing conditions were most evident in regions associated with mechanistic reasoning, not in the mentalizing network. Conjunction analysis of contrasts from both paradigms revealed that only one region was consistently more active when participants saw human, a medial parietal region regarded as the central hub of the DMN. These findings provide a neural basis for Haslam's distinction between two types of dehumanization, and suggest that the DMN and TPN play opposing roles in creating a sense of moral concern.

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