Dehumanization - the denial of full humanness to others - is a key trigger for mistreating other people. When others are dehumanized, they are often subjected to aggression, experience discrimination, and others even become blind to their pain. In the current research, Kurt Hugenberg (Miami University) and colleagues will examine the facial signals that can lead to dehumanization of others. Past research has shown that human faces are normally processed configurally. That is, rather than examining specific features (the eyes, the nose) of the face separately, the features of a face are spontaneously "grouped together" and processed as a whole. This work will investigate whether a failure to perform this configural processing for a face may trigger dehumanization. This proposed research will 1) bridge the boundary between perceptual and social psychology, 2) expand our limited understanding of the perceptual mechanisms underlying dehumanization, and 3) answer deep questions about both the antecedents and effects of dehumanization and the malleability of face processing. Dehumanization plays a key role in intergroup conflict, injustice, and discrimination. Understanding the mechanisms underlying judgments of humanness is a necessary next step to addressing the causes and consequences of dehumanization.
The proposed studies will explore the relationships between ascribing humanity and configural face processing in 10 experiments across 3 lines of research. The first line of work may provide novel evidence that configural face processing is a cue for humanity, with configurally processed faces making human faces seem more human, and that disruptions of configural processing may trigger dehumanization. Second, using both behavioral and neuroscience (ERP) techniques, this work will investigate whether increasing ascriptions of humanity can increase the extent of configural face processing. Third, the current research will seek to extend the findings regarding configural face processing and dehumanization to the domain of prejudice regulation. Whereas the activation of prejudice can occur simply from race-typical facial features, the motivation to control prejudice could be triggered by experiencing a face as fully human. Thus, this third line of work will demonstrate that prejudice activation and prejudice regulation are dissociable, such that the former can be triggered by race-typical features alone, and the latter via configural processing. This knowledge could lead to the development of novel strategies to effectively reduce prejudice and discrimination.