Michelle Maiese 

Originally published in July 2003, updated by Heidi Burgess in June 2020.

MBI MOOS LogoCurrent Implications

Everything in this article is still true.  The only thing that is missing is an example from the United States. The examples provided in 2003 were the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia.  In 2003, we were not thinking such a process was happening or was likely to happen in the United States. 

But here we are!   More...

What it Means to Dehumanize

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This post is also part of the
Constructive Conflict
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exploration of the tough challenges posed by the
Constructive Conflict Initiative.


Dehumanization is a psychological process whereby opponents view each other as less than human and thus not deserving of moral consideration. Jews in the eyes of Nazis and Tutsis in the eyes of Hutus (in the Rwandan genocide) are but two examples. Protracted conflict strains relationships and makes it difficult for parties to recognize that they are part of a shared human community. Such conditions often lead to feelings of intense hatred and alienation among conflicting parties. The more severe the conflict, the more the psychological distance between groups will widen. Eventually, this can result in moral exclusion. Those excluded are typically viewed as inferior, evil, or criminal.[1]

We typically think that all people have some basic human rights that should not be violated. Innocent people should not be murdered, raped, or tortured. Rather, international law suggests that they should be treated justly and fairly, with dignity and respect. They deserve to have their basic needs met, and to have some freedom to make autonomous decisions. In times of war, parties must take care to protect the lives of innocent civilians on the opposing side. Even those guilty of breaking the law should receive a fair trial, and should not be subject to any sort of cruel or unusual punishment.

Dehumanization is the psychological process of demonizing the enemy, making them seem less than human and hence not worthy of humane treatment. This can lead to increased violencehuman rights violationswar crimes, and genocide.

However, for individuals viewed as outside the scope of morality and justice, "the concepts of deserving basic needs and fair treatment do not apply and can seem irrelevant."[2] Any harm that befalls such individuals seems warranted, and perhaps even morally justified. Those excluded from the scope of morality are typically perceived as psychologically distant, expendable, and deserving of treatment that would not be acceptable for those included in one's moral community. Common criteria for exclusion include ideology, skin color, and cognitive capacity. We typically dehumanize those whom we perceive as a threat to our well-being or values.[3]

Psychologically, it is necessary to categorize one's enemy as sub-human in order to legitimize increased violence or justify the violation of basic human rights. Moral exclusion reduces restraints against harming or exploiting certain groups of people. In severe cases, dehumanization makes the violation of generally-accepted norms of behavior regarding one's fellow man seem reasonable, or even necessary.

Tamra D'Estree describes a conflict where one side was forced to change his identity in order to acheive personal legitimacy.

The Psychology of Dehumanization

Dehumanization is actually an extension of a less intense process of developing an "enemy image" of the opponent. During the course of protracted conflict, feelings of angerfear, and distrust shape the way that the parties perceive each other. Adversarial attitudes and perceptions develop and parties begin to attribute negative traits to their opponent. They may come to view the opponent as an evil enemy, deficient in moral virtue, or as a dangerous, warlike monster. Such images can stem from a desire for group identity and a need to contrast the distinctive attributes and virtues of one's own group with the vices of the "outside" group.[4] In some cases, evil-ruler enemy images form. While ordinary group members are regarded as neutral, or perhaps even innocent, their leaders are viewed as hideous monsters.[5]

Enemy images are usually black and white. The negative actions of one's opponent are thought to reflect their fundamental evil nature, traits, or motives.[6] One's own faults, as well as the values and motivations behind the actions of one's opponent, are usually discounted, denied, or ignored. It becomes difficult to empathize or see where one's opponent is coming from. Meaningful communication is unlikely, and it becomes difficult to perceive any common ground.

Once formed, enemy images tend to resist change, and serve to perpetuate and intensify the conflict. Because the adversary has come to be viewed as a "diabolical enemy," the conflict is framed as a war between good and evil.[7] Once the parties have framed the conflict in this way, their positions become more rigid. In some cases, zero-sum thinking develops as parties come to believe that they must either secure their own victory, or face defeat. New goals to punish or destroy the opponent arise, and in some cases more militant leadership comes into power.

Enemy images are accentuated, according to psychologists, by the process of "projection," in which people "project" their own faults onto their opponents. This means that people or groups who tend to be aggressive or selfish are likely to attribute those traits to their opponents, but not to themselves. This improves one's own self-image and increases group cohesion, but it also escalates the conflict and makes it easier to dehumanize the other side.

Deindividuation facilitates dehumanization as well. This is the psychological process whereby a person is seen as a member of a category or group rather than as an individual. Because people who are deindividuated seem less than fully human, they are viewed as less protected by social norms against aggression than those who are individuated.[8] It then becomes easier to rationalize contentious moves or severe actions taken against one's opponents.

Dangers of Dehumanization

While deindividuation and the formation of enemy images are very common, they form a dangerous process that becomes especially damaging when it reaches the level of dehumanization.

Once certain groups are stigmatized as evil, morally inferior, and not fully human, the persecution of those groups becomes more psychologically acceptable. Restraints against aggression and violence begin to disappear. Not surprisingly, dehumanization increases the likelihood of violence and may cause a conflict to escalate out of control. Once a violence break over has occurred, it may seem even more acceptable for people to do things that they would have regarded as morally unthinkable before.

Parties may come to believe that destruction of the other side is necessary, and pursue an overwhelming victory that will cause one's opponent to simply disappear. This sort of into-the-sea framing can cause lasting damage to relationships between the conflicting parties, making it more difficult to solve their underlying problems and leading to the loss of more innocent lives.

Indeed, dehumanization often paves the way for human rights violationswar crimes, and genocide. For example, in WWII, the dehumanization of the Jews ultimately led to the destruction of millions of people.[9] Similar atrocities have occurred in Rwanda, Cambodia, and the former Yugoslavia.

It is thought that the psychological process of dehumanization might be mitigated or reversed through humanization efforts, the development of empathy, the establishment of personal relationships between conflicting parties, and the pursuit of common goals.

Current Implications

Everything in this article is still true.  The only thing that is missing is an example from the United States. The examples provided in 2003 were the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia.  In 2003, we were not thinking such a process was happening or was likely to happen in the United States. 

But here we are!

Read this excerpt by Alexander Theodoridis and James Martherus in the Washington Post [10] from May 2018:

President Trump’s comments during a roundtable on California’s “sanctuary” law have prompted an uproar. “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country,” Trump said. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.” The White House heightened this phrasing in a news release, even as pundits like E.J. Dionne pushed back on the dangers of such language. [10]

But the article continues to explain that it isn't just President Trump, nor is it just Republicans. Reporting on a survey Theodoridis and Martherus did,

Seventy-seven percent of our respondents rated their political opponents as less evolved. [They asked respondents to rank members of their own and the opposing party on a scale from zero to 100.  Accompanying the scale was an image of the evolution of humans, with 0 being apes and 100 being a modern human (with Neanderthal and other primitive humanoids in between.]  Respondents who considered themselves strong partisans were more likely to dehumanize opposing partisans, and Republicans and Democrats were equally likely to dehumanize their opponents. [10] 

Indeed, Democrats do dehumanize Republicans, particularly Trump supporters, when they accuse them of being ignorant, hateful, or "deplorables" as was famously once said by Hillary Clinton in the last Presidential campaign. Accusing all Republicans of being racist bigots is similar, and is taken as badly by the right as the left takes Trump's attacks, as is evidenced by this blog by a Ben Armstrong, a conservative newscaster from Wisconsin. [11]   The contempt with which law enforcement officers and departments are now widely viewed after the George Floyd killing (assuming all police are racists, for example) along with widespread calls that they be "defunded" (and all officers presumably fired) is coming precariously close to dehumanization as well. 

As Maiese argued in the original article, such dehumanization can lead to violence.  Both Theodoridis and Martherus (in the Washington Post study) and Ben Armstrong's blog [11] point to the shooting at the Republican Congressional baseball team:

...when James Hodgkinson opened fire on congressional Republicans while they practiced for the Congressional Baseball Game for Charity, injuring four people before Capitol Police shot and killed him. Hodgkinson had previously posted a series of quotes critical of President Trump along with the caption, “Trump is a selfish inhuman with delusions of grandeur.”[10]

Theodoridis and Martherus go on to explain that dehumanization can also justify illegal behavior to try to keep the "evil animals" out of power:

Even vile conspiracy theories — say, the idea Democrats are trafficking in children inside Comet Ping-Pong pizza — may be easier to believe when attached to individuals we think lack some measure of humanity. If we are willing to describe the other side with dehumanizing metaphors, we may be inclined to accept otherwise unacceptable measures to keep them from gaining political power.[10]

I'm sure I need not explain that such behavior has only gotten worse over time, and is likely to ramp up even further as the U.S. Presidential election in November 2020 draws near. Indeed, shortly after the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd and violent protests broke out, Trump Tweeted "When the looting starts, the shooting starts," and "The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat."  [12]

Where do we go from here?

Research on dehumanization makes it very clear, as the original article points out, that such speech increases the likelihood that the conflict will spin out of control and escalate into of violence by weakening the taboos that protect us all from hate crimes and crimes against humanity.  Once people begin thinking of their opponents as sub-human, it is much easier to start treating them in ways they would never treat a fellow human, paving the way for mass atrocities.  It's hard to think that something like that could happen in the United States.  But the seeds are being planted, and the shoots of deep hatred are starting to show.  This is likely a major reason why the killing of George Floyd (and associated acts of police brutality) have sparked such outrage.  It revealed that police officers, who are responsible for protecting us from hate crimes, are in fact, guilty of those crimes. It is imperative, NOW, that we strongly disavow dehumanizing speech and actions--coming from all sides (not just "the other" side) and work to mend relationships between our increasingly adversarial groups.

-- Heidi Burgess, June, 2020.

September 2020 addition:  A reader responded to this essay, noting, correctly, that dehumanization has a long history in America--it is not new.  Slavery was the epitome of dehumanization, as was the killing and forced displacement of Native Americans.  The fact that we are still deeply conflicted about racial issues shows how deep the wounds of dehumanization are...and how hard they are to repair. 

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[1] Susan Opotow, "Aggression and Violence," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. M. Deutsch and P.T. Coleman. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 417.

[2] Susan Opotow, "Drawing the Line: Social Categorization, Moral Exclusion, and the Scope of Justice." In Cooperation, Conflict, and Justice: Essays Inspired by the Work of Morton Deutsch, eds. B.B. Bunker and J.Z. Rubin. (New York: Sage Publications, 1995), 347.

[3] Morton Deutsch, "Justice and Conflict," in The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, eds. M. Deutsch and P.T. Coleman. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 51.

[4] Janice Gross Stein, "Image, Identity and Conflict Resolution," in Managing Global Chaos: Sources of and Responses to International Conflict, eds. Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson, and Pamela R. Aall. (Herndon, VA: USIP Press, 1996), 94.

[5] Jeffrey Z. Rubin and Dean G. Pruitt. Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate, and Settlement, 2nd Edition. (New York: McGraw Hill College Division, 1994), 99.

[6] Ibid., 103.

[7] Ibid., 100.

[8] Ibid., 104.

[9] Opotow, "Drawing the Line," 349.

[10] Alexander Theodoridis and James Martherus. "Trump is not the only one who calls opponents ‘animals.’ Democrats and Republicans do it to each other." The Washington Post. May 21, 2018. Accessed June 29, 2020.

[11] Ben Armstrong. "The Dehumanization of Republicans." Ben Armstrong's Blog. Accessed June 29, 2020.

[12] Aaron Blake. "‘The only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.' ‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts.’ Twice in 25 hours, Trump tweets conspicuous allusions to violence.". The Washington Post. May 29, 2020.  Accessed June 29, 2020.


 Use the following to cite this article:
Maiese, Michelle. "Dehumanization." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2003 <>.