We’re all aware of the huge number of people currently seeking refuge in Europe in order to escape horrible conditions in countries like Syria. We’ve all seen the disturbing pictures of drowned little boys, and heard the various opinions being spruiked, from compassion to political one-upmanship.
I’m not going to tell you what you should think about what’s going on. I am going to tell you why the way you think might be flawed.
Let’s start with a deeply human, and deeply disturbing trait – dehumanisation or our ability to strip other people of their human qualities. Dehumanisation has been used (probably since prehistory) as a way to rationalise and justify barbarism, war, abuse, slavery, torture, and pretty much any other horrible thing that one human can do to another. And the scary thing is that it’s pretty much a default process for humans. In other words, it’s easy for us to dehumanise others, not because we’re inherently horrible, but because we don’t have the capacity to process a large enough number of relationships.
Dehumanisation is the result of human cognitive restrictions. Humans have a limited cognitive capacity for processing relationships with other humans. Most of us can only handle about 150 (give or take a few) connections, a limit known as Dunbar’s number. It takes a fair bit of processing power to form a relationship with another human – we need to be able to store a lot of information about that person, and model his or her actions in order to predict future actions. Thus, whilst human cognitive capacity is relatively high, we simply don’t have enough to handle more than around 150 mental representations of other humans. As such, throughout history, humans have stuck to smallish bands of around 150 – from early small tribes, to factions within larger tribes, to small communities, to communities within communities, etc. Even today, whilst you might know more than 150 people, you won’t be able to have relationships with all of them, and you’ll probably limit your interactions to those with whom you spend the most time and, by default, the majority of these people will be geographically close to you (although this is changing with modern technology). It’s possible that this limitation is due to capacity limits (i.e., we simply can’t justify that much brain power based on our evolutionary needs), or it might be the result of the fact that for most of our human evolution, there weren’t many of us, and we never needed to develop the capacity to process more than a relatively small number of relationships.
The consequence of Dunbar’s number, and our inability to process meaningful relationships beyond a limited number of people, is a profound one. Once we hit our cognitive limit, we can no longer ‘connect’ with another human. In fact, our default will be to place substantially less importance on those outside of our Dunbar’s limit, and potentially go so far as to be suspicious of, or actively hostile towards, those we don’t know. Again, this makes evolutionary sense. For most of human development, our survival was not only pinned to our relationships with those in our tribe, it was also potentially threatened by people from other tribes. In other words, fear of those we don’t know is not only likely, but an evolutionary adaptation. Because of our inherent likelihood toward fearing those we don’t know, we are also able to ascribe characteristics to ‘others’ that are unlike those of the people we know. We trust our tribe, but fear others – making it easy to imply that ‘others’ are not trustworthy, are unlikable, and even actively dangerous. In fact, ‘others’ might be so different from us as to be inhuman. Thus we fall victim to the revolting cognitive trick that is dehumanisation: if a person is not human, we don’t have to worry about our actions toward him or her – and there’s no need for guilt if we act violently. After all, we’re simply protecting ourselves and our tribe from the non-humans.
To restate all of that simply, our evolution has resulted in cognitive limitations that make it difficult for us to process large numbers of relationships, making us prone to emphasising our connections to those we know, and to ignoring, disliking, or fearing those we don’t. It’s just simpler and substantially less cognitively taxing to go with this default (let’s call it a heuristic of dehumanisation). Worse, it makes it a lot easier to act without compassion to those people that don’t fit within our limits, and to justify the consequences of those actions.
The heuristic of dehumanisation pretty much perfectly explains the words and actions of those people who describe refugees and asylum seekers as ‘illegal immigrants’, ‘threats’, ‘boat people’, or ‘migrant swarms’. All of these descriptors strip away the humanity of the ‘other’, making it very simple to avoid any guilt, or any need to act compassionately. The simplistic rhetoric of virtually any right-wing, anti-immigration movement will pretty much always stoop to dehumanisation, labelling other humans as a threat to you or your tribe, and making it ‘easier’ to act violently, either directly, or through a lack of action or care. At best it becomes ‘someone else’s problem’, at worst it ‘excuses’ inhuman action (it’s also sad that those who buy into dehumanisation arguments are also unaware of the irony of their own actions).
Here’s the point. Throughout my blog posts I’ve talked about how our cognitive architecture makes it very difficult for us to be properly human. We’re riddled with biases and limitations that warp our perception of the world and make it very hard to see things as they really are. We get so caught up in our own, distorted view of the world that we let our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings guide our actions, without taking pause to question the validity of our world view. It’s just easier to live our lives on default. And that’s our problem. We prefer the easy solution (after all, evolution programmed us to prefer less thinking – read here), and struggle when we’re presented with alternatives that question our status quo. But being truly human means having the self-awareness to question ingrained points of view, automatic thinking, and default feelings. It’s our responsibility to ourselves and those around us to overcome our limitations by learning to think about the world in a more complex way – one that doesn’t assume that the first, easy answer is the right one.
More than anyone, our leaders should demonstrate complex thinking. It’s deeply disappointing when they model a simplistic, self-serving, biased viewpoint. Compassion takes courage, because it’s harder than going with the default (read here). Tribalism worked great on a planet with only a million humans. Seven and a half billion, not so much. Our job is to learn to think like modern humans, not our tribal ancestors (read here and here).
So next time you hear yourself or someone else justify a lack of compassion by dehumanising another human being, maybe stop for a minute and think. Try a little compassion – how would you feel if you and your family were fleeing a war zone after losing everything? How would you feel if your child drowned while you were fleeing from violence? Maybe you’d feel human.