From slavery to genocide, society has shown a terrifying ability to disregard the personhood of others. Here's why.
One of the most amazing court cases you probably have never heard of had come down to this. Standing Bear, the reluctant chief of the Ponca tribe, rose on May 2, 1879, to address a packed audience in a Nebraska courtroom. At issue was the existence of a mind that many were unable to see.
Standing Bear’s journey to this courtroom had been excruciating. The U.S. government had decided several years earlier to force the 752 Ponca Native Americans off their lands along the fertile Niobrara River and move them to the desolate Indian Territory, in what is now northern Oklahoma. Standing Bear surrendered everything he owned, assembled his tribe, and began marching a six-hundred-mile “trail of tears.” If the walk didn’t kill them (as it did Standing Bear’s daughter), then the parched Indian Territory would. Left with meager provisions and fields of parched rock to farm, nearly a third of the Poncas died within the first year. This included Standing Bear’s son. As his son lay dying, Standing Bear promised to return his son’s bones to the tribe’s burial grounds so that his son could walk the afterlife with his ancestors, according to their religion. Desperate, Standing Bear decided to go home.
Carrying his son’s bones in a bag clutched to his chest, Standing Bear and twenty-seven others began their return in the dead of winter. Word spread of the group’s travel as they approached the Omaha Indian reservation, midway through their journey. The Omahas welcomed them with open arms, but U.S. officials welcomed them with open handcuffs. General George Crook was ordered by government officials to return the beleaguered Poncas to the Indian Territory.
Crook couldn’t bear the thought. “I’ve been forced many times by orders from Washington to do most inhuman things in dealings with the Indians,” he said, “but now I’m ordered to do a more cruel thing than ever before.” Crook was an honorable man who could no more disobey direct orders than he could fly, so instead he stalled, encouraging a newspaper editor from Omaha to enlist lawyers who would then sue General Crook (as the U.S. government’s representative) on Standing Bear’s behalf. The suit? To have the U.S. government recognize Standing Bear as a person, as a human being.
The case lasted several days, during which the government lawyers attempted to portray the Poncas as savages, more like thoughtless animals or unfeeling objects than rational and emotional human beings. Perceiving the Poncas as mindless, after all, is what had made it possible for officials to treat them as property under the law rather than as persons. This perception was clear from the government attorney’s opening question: he asked Standing Bear how many people he had led on his march. “I just wanted to see if he could count,” the attorney explained.
After several days of testimony, the trial drew to a close. Judge Elmer Dundy knew that Standing Bear wanted to address the audience in his own words, as was customary in Ponca tradition, but direct statements at the end of a trial were not allowed under U.S. jurisprudence. Respecting Native American tradition and violating his own, Judge Dundy called the bailiff to his desk, whispered that “the court is now adjourned” to secretly end the official proceedings, and then allowed Standing Bear to rise and address the court.
So it had come down to this. At about ten p.m., at the end of a very long day, Standing Bear rose. Illiterate, uneducated, and with no time to prepare an address, he stood silent for a minute to survey the room. Finally, he spoke: “I see a great many of you here. I think a great many are my friends.” Then he tried to reveal that he was, in fact, much more than a mindless savage. He explained his tribe’s difficulties in the Indian Territory, stated that he had never tried to hurt a white person, and described how he had taken several U.S. soldiers into his own home over the years and nursed them back to health. Then, in a stunning moment that channeled Shylock’s monologue from “The Merchant of Venice,” Standing Bear held out his hand. “This hand is not the color of yours. But if I pierce it, I shall feel pain. If you pierce your hand, you also feel pain. The blood that will flow from mine will be the same color as yours. I am a man.”
Standing Bear was a man intelligent enough to lead his tribe along a six-hundred-mile journey in the dead of winter and back again, a man who felt love so deeply that he carried his son’s bones around his neck to fulfill a promise. Yet he found himself pleading with people from far-off places who had failed almost completely to see his mind and instead viewed him as a piece of mindless property. Facing those unable to recognize a sentient mind before their eyes, Standing Bear had been forced to show his to them.
Standing Bear’s case is an extreme example of a surprisingly common failing of our sixth sense. Like closing your eyes and then concluding that nothing exists, failing to engage your ability to reason about the mind of another person not only leads to indifference about others, it can also lead to the sense that others are relatively mindless. Most extreme examples typically involve some kind of hatred or prejudice that distances people from one another. The Nazis, building on centuries of anti-Semitic stereotypes, depicted the Jews as greedy rats without conscience or as gluttonous pigs lacking self-control. The Hutus in Rwanda depicted the Tutsis as mindless cockroaches before killing them by the hundreds of thousands. Exceptions in these extreme cases typically came from those who actually knew the targets of prejudice directly. General Crook had interviewed Standing Bear and his tribesmen in his office; they’d told him directly of their pain and suffering, of their hopes and dreams, of their beliefs and memories. He did not think of the Poncas as mindless savages, and so was willing to orchestrate the legal case in which he was named as the defendant. From these examples, we begin to learn important lessons about what it takes to recognize the existence of a fully human mind in another person, as well as the consequences of failing to recognize one.
Of course, Standing Bear is neither the first nor the last human being to have his mind overlooked and underestimated. The cross-cultural psychologist Gustav Jahoda catalogued how Europeans since the time of the ancient Greeks viewed those living in relatively primitive cultures as lacking a mind in one of two ways: either lacking self-control and emotions, like an animal, or lacking reason and intellect, like a child. So foreign in appearance, language, and manner, “they” did not simply become other people, they became lesser people. More specifically, they were seen as having lesser minds, diminished capacities to either reason or feel.
Similar evaluations play over the course of history like a broken record. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis while supporting a labor strike by sanitation workers whose rallying cry was “I am a man.” In the early 1990ss, California State Police commonly referred to crimes involving young black men as NHI—No Humans Involved. In 2010, thousands of immigrants protested extreme immigration laws in Arizona while carrying signs saying, “I am human.” When people around the planet demand human rights or claim they have been treated inhumanely, the central issue is their oppressors’ failure to recognize their mind. This may be why Article I of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts a person’s mind front and center: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Apparently, it can be easy to forget that other people have minds with the same general capacities and experiences as your own. Once seen as lacking the ability to reason, to choose freely, or to feel, a person is considered something less than human.
The essence of dehumanization is, therefore, failing to recognize the fully human mind of another person. Those who fight against dehumanization typically deal with extreme cases that can make it seem like a relatively rare phenomenon. It is not. Subtle versions are all around us. Even your refrigerator may hold an artifact of one example. When the French began making champagne for the British, the champagne makers quickly learned that the Brits preferred much drier champagne than the French did. In fact, the French found this version to be unpalatable. They named this inferior champagne brut sauvage, poking fun at the seemingly unsophisticated Brits. The joke was eventually on the French: brut is now the most popular variety of champagne in the world.
Our sixth sense’s shortcomings in these cases arise partly from our failure to engage it when in the presence of someone so different or distant from ourselves. It may feed off prejudice and hatred, but it does not require either. Disengagement can come anytime there is a distance between two minds that needs to be bridged. For instance, when team owners in the National Football League proposed extending the season from an already punishing sixteen games to a grueling eighteen, Ray Lewis, one of the most fearsome players in the NFL, protested that the owners had overlooked the players’ experience and were thinking of them only as moneymakers. “. We’re not automobiles. We’re not machines. We’re humans.” There’s no reason to think that any kind of prejudice or animosity was involved here. The owners may well have been focused on their own finances rather than on their players’ minds, a focus that would make it easy to overlook or underestimate their players’ pain.
Even doctors—those whose business is to treat others humanely— can remain disengaged from the minds of their patients, particularly when those patients are easily seen as different from the doctors themselves. Until the early 1990s, for instance, it was routine practice for infants to undergo surgery without anesthesia. Why? Because at the time, doctors did not believe that infants were able to experience pain, a fundamental capacity of the human mind. “How often we used to be reassured by more senior physicians that newborn infants cannot feel pain,” Dr. Mary Ellen Avery writes in the opening of .
“Oh yes, they cry when restrained and during procedures, but ‘that is different.’ ” Doctors have long understood infants as human beings in the biological sense, but only in the last twenty years have they understood them as human beings in the psychological sense.
Your sixth sense functions only when you engage it. When you do not, you may fail to recognize a fully human mind that is right before your eyes. It is comforting to imagine that such “mindblindness,” as psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen describes it, is just a chronic condition or personality trait for some people, a condition that neither you nor I have. Indeed, for some it is. This is a comforting story because it makes the inhumanity that can stem from dehumanization, from overlooking the mind of another person or being indifferent to it, seem like something that is likely to exist in other people, not in you. Although it is indeed true that the ability to read the minds of others exists along a spectrum with stable individual differences, I believe that the more useful knowledge comes from understanding the moment-to-moment, situational influences that can lead even the most social person—yes, even you and me—to treat others as mindless animals or objects. Engaging with the mind of another person depends not only on the type of person you are but also on the context you are in. None of the cases described in this chapter so far involve people with chronic and stable personality disorders. Instead, they all come from predictable contexts in which people’s sixth sense remained disengaged for one fundamental reason: distance.
Distance Makes Mindless
For psychologists, distance is not just physical space. It is also psychological space, the degree to which you feel closely connected to someone else. You are describing psychological distance when you say that you feel “distant” from your spouse, “out of touch” with your kids’ lives, “worlds apart” from a neighbor’s politics, or “separated” from your employees. You don’t mean that you are physically distant from other people; you mean that you feel psychologically distant from them in some way. You’ve developed different beliefs than your spouse over time and have “grown apart,” your kids’ generation is so different from your own, or you work in a large corporation with more employees than you can name. These two features of social life—the magnitude of the gap between your own mind and others’ minds, and the motivation to reduce that gap—are critical for understanding when you engage your ability to think about other minds fully and when you do not.
Distance keeps your sixth sense disengaged for at least two reasons. First, your ability to understand the minds of others can be triggered by your physical senses. When you’re too far away in physical space, those triggers do not get pulled. Second, your ability to understand the minds of others is also engaged by your cognitive inferences. Too far away in psychological space—too different, too foreign, too other—and those triggers, again, do not get pulled. Understanding how these two triggers—your physical senses and your cognitive inferences—engage you with the mind of another person is essential for understanding the dehumanizing mistakes we can make when we remain disengaged.
Trigger No. 1: Sensing Others' Minds
Not long ago, I took my three sons camping and ended up in the emergency room. My oldest son was whittling an impossibly large branch with a ridiculously small pocketknife when the blade slipped and sliced into his hand. I had my back turned, tending our campfire, but when I heard him cry out, I instantly spun around to see him hopping up and down with blood dripping out of his hand, looking me squarely in the eyes with a mixture of pain and fear. In a split second I knew exactly what he had done, was wincing in pain right along with him, and was equally worried about what we were going to do. In that split second, our minds merged.
My brain came equipped with exactly the same operating system that yours did, one that allows our brains to synchronize with another’s automatically, under the right circumstances. There is no magical psychic connection in this; it follows three perfectly natural steps. First, you and another person have to be sharing attention, to be looking at or thinking about the same thing. As human beings, you and I are exceptionally good at this attention detection. When my son cut his hand, I instantly glanced at his face and could tell, from twenty feet away, that he had cut his palm rather than his wrist. I couldn’t measure the angle of a roof if I had an hour and a handful of protractors, but both you and I can sense the angle of a person’s eyes down to decimal points within a split second, and can therefore easily figure out what someone else is looking at. Once two or more people are focused on the same thing, their minds start to merge, because they are reacting to the same event. You are disgusted by vomit. So am I. Cute babies make you happy. Me, too. Slicing your hand with a knife hurts, a lot. I’m with you. Although we all like to think of ourselves as unique, by and large our brains respond to events very similarly. When two people are evaluating the same event, they are setting the stage for thinking and feeling the same way as well.
Second, once our eyes are attending to the same event, our faces and bodies may synchronize. “When we see a stroke aimed,” wrote Adam Smith in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” “and just ready to fall upon the leg or arm of another person, we naturally shrink and draw back our leg or our own arm.” When I saw that my son had cut his hand, I winced in pain just as if I had cut myself. A similar thing happens at my kids’ soccer games, where I have to keep the row in front of me clear, to allow room for empathy kicks. Other parents kick along with their kids, too. Almost any event can provoke such imitation. See someone yawn and it’s hard not to yawn yourself. Laugh and at least some in the room will laugh with you. The same is true of smiles and startles and frowns, all of which are contagious in crowds. Pay attention the next time you’re in a group and you’ll be startled by how often you catch yourself adopting similar gestures or postures, a similar pace of speech, or even a similar accent as others. It’s as if you’ve become a puppet on someone else’s strings.
Finally, once eyes and bodies are merged, our minds tend to merge as well. Thoughts and feelings come from what we’re looking at and how our bodies are reacting to it, so when two people are watching something and reacting similarly, they are likely to be feeling and thinking similarly as well. Adam Smith thought imitation reflected your understanding of another person’s experience—your body shows what you think another person feels. In fact, the reverse is also true: you feel what your body shows. When you see a pained expression on a friend’s face, your face may also contort into a pained expression, thereby making you feel a touch of pain yourself. Sit up straight and you’ll feel more proud of your accomplishments. Smile and you will feel happier. Even furrowing your brow, as if you are thinking harder, can lead you to actually think harder. This link from imitating another person’s actions to experiencing the other person’s emotions is a critical link for understanding the minds of others. If a researcher disables your ability to imitate another’s facial expression, such as by asking you to hold a pen pursed between your lips10 or by injecting your face with Botox,11 your ability to understand what another person is feeling drops significantly. Botox dulls your social senses right along with your wrinkles. Buyer beware.
This three-part chain—sharing attention, imitating action, and imitation creating experience—shows one way in which your sixth sense works through your physical senses. More important, it also shows how your sixth sense could remain disengaged, leaving you disconnected from the minds of others. Close your eyes, look away, plug your ears, stand too far away to see or hear, or simply focus your attention elsewhere, and your sixth sense may not be triggered.
The importance of physical distance for engaging our sixth sense is perhaps best illustrated by a surprising problem for military leaders in times of war: soldiers in battle find it relatively easy to shoot at someone a great distance away but have a much more difficult time shooting an enemy standing right in front of them. George Orwell described his own reluctance to shoot during the Spanish Civil War. “At this moment,” he wrote, “a man, presumably carrying a message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a hundred yards… Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists,’ but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.”
Orwell is far from alone. Interviews with U.S. soldiers in World War II found that only 15 to 20 percent were able to discharge their weapons at the enemy in close firefights. Even when they did shoot, soldiers found it hard to hit their human targets. In the U.S. Civil War, muskets were capable of hitting a pie plate at 70 yards and soldiers could typically reload anywhere from 4 to 5 times per minute. Theoretically, a regiment of 200 soldiers firing at a wall of enemy soldiers 100 feet wide should be able to kill 120 on the first volley. And yet the kill rate during the Civil War was closer to 1 to 2 men per minute, with the average distance of engagement being only 30 yards. Battles raged on for hours because the men just couldn’t bring themselves to kill one another once they could see the whites of their enemy’s eyes. Even General George Crook’s men had this difficulty. At Rosebud Creek on June 16, 1876, his men shot 25,000 musket balls but hit only 99 Native Americans, wounding just 1 person with every 252 shots. Modern armies now know that they have to overcome these empathic urges, so soldiers undergo relentless training that desensitizes them to close combat, so that they can do their jobs. Modern technology also allows armies to kill more easily because it enables killing at such a great physical distance. Much of the killing by U.S. soldiers now comes through the hands of drone pilots watching a screen from a trailer in Nevada, with their sixth sense almost completely disengaged.
All of this research highlights how our sensory experiences make it possible to understand the minds of others. General George Crook was able to recognize Standing Bear’s suffering, appreciate his plans, and understand the injustice because he saw the Poncas’ pain right before his eyes and listened to their stories as told through their own voices. Government officials too distant and disconnected to use their senses remained disengaged, making it more likely for them to think of the Poncas as mindless savages. You consider the minds of others, at least in part, when your other senses lead you to.
Trigger No.2:Interring Other' Minds
Other people obviously do not need to be standing right in front of you for you to imagine what they are thinking or feeling or planning. You can simply close your eyes and imagine it. You can imagine that someone who got fired is deeply unhappy or know that being cut by a knife is painful without having to see a pink slip or blood. When company executives think of their customers, husbands think of their wives, or politicians think of their constituents, there is no need to have a customer or wife or constituent on hand to trigger these people’s physical senses. They can rely on their inferences based on what they already know (or think they know) and work from there.
You can see this distinction between senses and inferences working clearly in the minds of doctors. Over time, doctors naturally become desensitized to the distress and pain of their patients, just as you habituate to any repeated experience, yet doctors retain the ability to know when their patients are in pain and when they are not. Far from being a bad thing, dulling their empathic sense is essential to the practice of medicine. You and I would be physically crippled trying to give another person an injection. A doctor may not feel it when another person is in pain, but can infer that the other person is in pain without any difficulty. There seem to be two different routes to understanding the mind of another person.
In fact, scientists can now pinpoint these different routes in the brain. In one experiment, physicians who practiced acupuncture lay on their backs in an fMRI machine and watched videos of people being poked with needles. Some videos showed people getting poked in the foot, others in the hand, and others in the lips. These are painful to watch, I promise, at least if you’re not a physician. Nonphysicians who watched these videos had the same reaction I do, with the neural regions that are active when actually experiencing physical pain first-hand also being active when watching other people experiencing pain. It quite literally hurts to watch someone else being hurt. The physicians, however, showed virtually no response in these physical pain regions at all. Instead, the physicians showed activity in a very different part of the brain, most notably a relatively small spot in their medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC). This spot is located about one inch above and behind the inside part of your eyebrows, on each side of your brain. For the good of your social life, try not to get injured there.
More important for you than its location is the MPFC’s function: it is involved in making inferences about the minds of others. When you wonder, “What on earth are they thinking?,” your MPFC is engaged. When you are mulling over what your mom wants for her birthday, you’re using your MPFC. And when you are calmly noting, “That person is in pain,” your MPFC is engaged. When the physicians in this experiment saw someone getting poked in the face with a needle, they did not feel the person’s pain. Instead, their engaged MPFC indicated that they calmly inferred the other person’s pain. Most of us might wish that our doctors were more sensitive, perhaps better able to feel our pain, but what we really want is for them to know of our pain. We do not want a doctor’s empathy; we want a doctor’s MPFC.
The MPFC and a handful of other brain regions undergird the inferential component of your sixth sense. When this network of brain regions is engaged, you are thinking about others’ minds. Failing to engage this region when thinking about other people is then a solid indication that you’re overlooking their minds. Research confirms that the MPFC is engaged more when you’re thinking about yourself, your close friends and family, and others who have beliefs similar to your own. It is activated when you care enough about others to care what they are thinking, and not when you are indifferent to others. It is significantly less active when you’re thinking about the minds of those who are psychologically distant from you. When Republicans think about what fellow Republicans believe, they are using the MPFC. When Republicans think about what Democrats believe, they are using their MPFC a bit less. Democrats do the same thing, of course, just with the opposite groups.
This neural activity is important because it tells us something critical about how people think about one another. Those who are close to us are considered mindful human beings, “like me.” As people become more and more different from us, or more distant from our immediate social networks, they become less and less likely to engage our MPFC. When we don’t engage this region, others appear relatively mindless, something less than fully human.
A neuroimaging experiment shows this most clearly. In this experiment, American university students lay on their backs in an fMRI scanner and looked at pictures of relatively close in-group members— fellow college students and “Americans”—and more distant out-group members—the elderly and rich people. Most interesting were these students’ responses to pictures of homeless people, a group that was seen as being the most different from the students themselves. In the scanner, pictures of homeless people triggered the MPFC significantly less than photos of any of the other group members, and instead produced activation more similar to that seen when participants looked at disgusting objects, such as an overflowing toilet or vomit. Outside the scanner, these participants rated the homeless people as more disgusting than any of the others. More tellingly, the volunteers also rated the homeless as being less mindful—less intelligent, less articulate, and less emotional. The homeless were seen more as mindless objects than as fully mindful people.
You don’t need to look deep into a person’s brain to see the consequences of failing to engage your MPFC. You can hear it in the impressions people share about the minds of others. In calling for welfare reform in 2010, for instance, South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, André Bauer, likened the poor to “stray animals” whose government assistance should be curtailed. “You know why?” he said. “Because they breed… They will reproduce, especially ones who don’t think much further than that… They don’t know any better.” Bauer’s sixth sense appears to have been disengaged, as is true for many people when they think about the poor, the homeless, the most disadvantaged and distant of social groups. Distance—a sense of dissimilarity, of difference, of otherness—can keep your MPFC uninvolved, leaving you to think about other human beings as something less than fully human.
The mistake that can arise when you fail to engage with the minds of others is that you may come to think of them as relatively mindless. That is, you may come to think that these others have less going on between their ears than, say, you do.
This may sound too abstract, but there are many subtle examples of it in daily life. Let me start with one from the most basic and fundamental experience you have of your own mind: your sense of free will. Although many scientists have little patience for explanations of behavior based on free will, there is no doubt that you and I feel like we have it. It seems that we can freely choose to eat another doughnut or not, move our fingers or not, keep reading this book or not. But what about the minds of others? Are others as free to choose as you are, or do they have less free will? Are they more beholden to their circumstances or their environments or their rigid ideologies than you are?
The finding from careful research is that most people answer these questions by claiming that they have more free will than others do. For instance, having free will means being independent, free to choose any of a number of different options regardless of the surrounding circumstances, in accordance with one’s own interests and desires. In one experiment, college roommates were asked to report how predictable their past decisions in life were and how predictable their future decisions will be. Each person did the same for his or her roommate. These students rated their own past and future as considerably less predictable than their roommates’ past and future, as if their roommate had less free will—a lesser mind—than they did.
Free will also requires being able to choose between different options—“life is what you make it,” as the saying goes. In another experiment, employees at two different restaurants were given a list of things they might be doing over the next ten years, from where they could be living (for example, the East Coast, the West Coast, the Midwest, an apartment in the same town) to where they could be working (in the same job, in an exciting job, in a boring job, having no job) to what their lives would be like (same lifestyle as now, more family-focused lifestyle, more carefree lifestyle). They circled all the possibilities that seemed likely, then did the same for a coworker they knew well. At the end, the researchers counted the number of genuine possibilities people had circled, and there were markedly more circles for one’s own future life than for the well-known coworker’s life. Having free will allows you to make wonderful choices, but it also allows you to make terrible choices. If you ask people to chart out their futures compared to others’, they don’t simply report having more freedom to end up with good options, such as owning a great house or having an exciting job. They also report having more freedom to end up with terrible options, such as owning a crappy house or having no job at all.
It’s not only free will that other minds might seem to lack. This lesser minds effect has many manifestations, including what appears to be a universal tendency to assume that others’ minds are less sophisticated and more superficial than one’s own. Members of distant out-groups, ranging from terrorists to poor hurricane victims to political opponents, are also rated as less able to experience complicated emotions, such as shame, pride, embarassment, and guilt than close members of one’s own group. One series of experiments even found that apologies from distant out-groups, such as Canadians being asked to forgive Afghan soldiers for a friendly-fire incident, are relatively ineffective because those distant others are seen as relatively unable to experience remorse. Their apologies therefore seemed disingenuous.
When the mind of another person looks relatively dim because you are not engaged with it directly, it does not mean that the other person’s mind is actually dimmer. Standing Bear was seen as being less than fully human—as being unsophisticated, unintelligent, and unfeeling—and today this seems like a relatively rare instance of extreme prejudice. Perhaps it is, but it is also an example of how being disengaged from the mind of another human being can make them appear relatively mindless, as having less going on between the ears than you and your close friends do. More subtle versions of that disengagement are common, and the mistakes they create can lead us to be less wise about the minds of others than we could be.