Dehumanisation – Something We Are All Capable Of


City Psychology Society first guest speaker of the year was Dr. Lasana Harris. After a captivating talk, Dr. Harris gladly agreed to an interview. He would describe himself as an Inter-disciplinary Researcher, as he incorporates aspects of different fields such as Social Psychology and Philosophy into his research.

His talk was about dehumanisation, also known as dehumanised perception. The idea behind this is very simple, when we encounter other human beings we feature space map and infer. Feature space mapping is looking at the contour, size and shapes of objects and matching this up with similar dimensions already stored in our brains to figure out what the object is. It’s the same with human beings – for example we can use height, size, eye and hair colour to identify one human being from another. Dr. Harris explained that human beings are unique as we go one step further and infer to figure out what the other person is thinking.

A very reassuring theme is that professionals do not always begin their academic careers in the degree subject which you would expect. Dr. Harris completed his undergraduate degree in Media and Communications and wanted to be a journalist. However, through coming into contact with a developmental psychologist. He began to realise that Psychology did interest him.

Although Dr. Harris gave us a nice example of how Disney capitalises on the notion that we can humanise objects, and can infer emotions from objects given the right context. During question time it became apparent that our students were concerned that the media negatively use the notion of dehumanisation in news channels. For example, the news channels often has a ‘them versus us’ attitude on anything negative – which may lead the audience to dehumanise people who are need in of help. One student asked Dr. Harris if he believes that we can use what has already been researched to bring about a social change. His answer was that the context of what is shown on television has a powerful impact, and all the media does is reinforce the negative impact. However, Dr. Harris suggested that social change is possible as cultural shifts happen naturally. For example, the ‘hated outgroups’ from 80 years ago are no longer hated due to a change of social attitudes.

“Living in a social environment is very complicated. I think what separates us from other species is that fact that we can switch emotions on and off. All species will kill for food, but the want and act of killing for the sake of it is only found in a few species.”

Although dehumanisation can be seen as a negative in many cases, Harris showed the audience that the practical applications of dehumanisation can be positive. For example, doctors have to be able to have empathy towards their patients, and be able to dehumanise during surgery. For example, it may affect their performance if they are thinking about: how worried the patients family are, and how much pain the patient will be after the surgery. Another practical application which was quite striking for me is how the army often teach the soldiers -knowingly or unknowingly – to dehumanise the people that they may eventually have to face in combat.

I was interested in knowing what the most exciting thing for Harris was, as he has completed many years of research. Harris responded that the most exciting time for any researcher is when they are running their first initial analysis to check whether their hypothesis is correct. As many psychology students would agree, when conducting our own experience a significant effect is not always found. However, Harris pointed out that although there are many setbacks in the life of a researcher, it is very interesting when something unexpected pops up out of the data that you wouldn’t expect would happen.

Further expanding on the idea of having setbacks in research; I was curious about the secret to dealing with these setbacks without becoming too discouraged. Researchers encounter much more setbacks than students in the form of: papers and grants being rejected, and people not hiring you and so on. Dr. Harris’ advice was to not take criticism too harshly nor personally.

“You have to have ‘thick skin’. Don’t take criticism too harshly, don’t take it personally, you should use it to improve yourself. There’s always something from a criticism you can learn.”

On a more positive note, I wanted to know what kept Harris motivated to continue conducting research regardless of setbacks. He shared that the best part of his role is being able to give talks, as he loves storytelling, and his talks are his way of storytelling to the audience. Which I believe is the secret to giving inspiring, memorable talks.

Harris’ Advice to Students:

“Research experience, that’s the most important thing. Get as much research experience as you can. Take relevant classes and get the research experience.”

What makes you bored? Doing the same thing continuously for a very long time.

Favourite season? Summer! I’m from the Caribbean.

Are you usually late, early or right on time? Right on time. Maybe a little early, but never late.

Written by Dionne St Rose


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