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What does it mean to be human? How salience of the human category affects responses to intergroup harm


Thomas Morton, School of Psychology, University of Exeter, Exeter, EX4 4QG, United Kingdom.



Two studies explore how salience of the human category influences responses to intergroup harm and how different images of humanity modify these effects. In Study 1, British participants (n = 86) contemplated acts of terrorism against their group. When the human category (versus intergroup distinctions) was salient and when the prevailing image of humanity was malevolent (versus benevolent), participants were not only more understanding of terrorism, blamed this less on religious group memberships, but also more strongly endorsed the use of extreme force by countries to defend their boarders, preserve the peace and prevent future attacks. In Study 2, British participants (n = 83) contemplated the torture of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers. When the human category was salient and the prevailing image of humanity was malevolent, participants experienced less guilt and justified torture more. We conclude that the effects of human category salience on interpretations of intergroup harm depend on what it means to be human. When human nature is perceived negatively, thinking in terms of the human category can normalise intergroup harm regardless of whether the outgroup or the ingroup is the perpetrator. Implications for re-categorisation approaches to conflict reduction are discussed. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.