In a previous post, the process of dehumanization was suggested as the psychological foundation leading to the atrocities conducted by organizations like ISIS. The opposite process of humanization was then suggested as the antidote for the development of extreme, violent behavior. This idea can be summarized as follows:

  1. When violent, savage behavior erupts (as in the case of ISIS), it has to be addressed firmly and eradicated.
  2. Separately, it is important to understand the process that eventually leads to the creation of such violent behavior. If we understand the process, we may be able to stop or even reverse it before it evolves into violence.
  3. Science tells us that at the heart of that process there is a psychological phenomenon called dehumanization – the act of demonizing people from a different group, making it (falsely) appear as a legitimate target of violence.
  4. The antidote is therefore the opposite process, called humanization – where one recognizes that others share similar human qualities with them.
  5. If humanization is indeed the antidote, and if it only works at an early stage, we should seek places where the process of dehumanization is just starting, and neutralize it by reaching out to others who are starting to form the view that we are not human like them, and prove them wrong.

What Humanization Is and What It Isn’t

Humanization is not naïve. The notion of this approach is not to respond to violence with kindness, but rather to work to nip the roots of violence in the bud by changing the way we view religious/national/ethnic differences. Furthermore, humanization is not an abstract or vague idea focused only on the cultivation of certain emotions or thoughts. At a societal level, it is a pragmatic, well-defined, scientifically-valid model that can be used to construct government policies of immigration, education, and defense. At an individual level, it is a worldview and as a personal policy by which to go about life. Yet before we can apply humanization to work in our favor, we first need to understand how the processes of humanization and of dehumanization work:

From Dehumanization to Humanization

On his Ride of Your Life interview, Dr. Phil Zimbardo described dehumanization as focused on differences, whereas humanization is focused on similarities. Statistically, this perception of similarity between two groups of people comprises two factors:

  1. The difference between the average person in each of the two groups (or the variability between groups), and:
  2. How different are people within each of the groups (i.e. the variability within groups).

The greater the variability between, and the smaller the variability within, the more we perceive the two groups to be farther apart. Dehumanization therefore occurs when you focus on things that are both different between you and people in another group, and also tend to be similar between you and other people in your own group. The opposite process of humanization takes place when you focus on the things that tend to be more similar between you and people in other groups, and where there is more variability within people in the group you belong to. Typically, cultural and religious characteristics surface differences, universal human values like family and community surface similarities.

Let’s try to illustrate this idea by conducting the following thought experiment: Imagine that you put people from two different groups in a room, and give one group red shirts, and the other blue ones. For example, say one group are all men from Europe wearing red shirts, and in the other group men of the Sikh religion of India, wearing blue shirts. You then ask each of the individuals to stand next to someone who is wearing something similar on their head. Since most Sikh men traditionally wear a turban, and since men in the European group are more likely to leave their heads uncovered indoors, you will probably get the Europeans crowding in one corner and the Sikhs in another. The variability between the two groups is high, and the variability within each group is low, so the perception of difference between the two groups is maximized. Viewing the room from above may look like this:


The choice to focus on headdress brings out the most visible and distinct difference between the two groups, which could possibly form a foundation to a dehumanization process.

Now, you ask people in the two groups to look at their entire clothing from head to toe, and stand next to the person who is dressed in the most similar way to them. Looking from above, the two groups will now be a little closer together. There is less of a difference between the way people in the two groups dress on average (of course apart from the color of their shirts!) but the Sikhs may still be dressed more similarly to one another, and so will the Europeans, so each group is still crowding within itself:


The dissimilarities are a now little deemphasized, and standing closer to each other makes each member of the two groups notice the individuals the other group, whereas before, the other group seemed like a single, uniform clump of people. Noticing the individuals already moves the needle towards humanizing the other group.

Next, imagine that you ask each person in the two groups to stand next to the person who is both dressed similarly to them and is about the same height. Since there are many tall and many short people in both groups, there is now more variability within groups, and the men are now more spread apart in the same space:


In this situation, some men wearing blue stand very close to ones wearing red shirts, noticing that apart from the color of their shirts, these other men are of the same height and dressed similarly.

Finally, you ask all people to ignore clothing and only arrange by height. Since people generally vary significantly by height, and since Sikh and European men are generally of the same height, the two bunches, already spread across the room, move now closer together. At this point they are completely intermixed, and looking from above the only visible difference is the color of their shirts:


In this configuration the similarities between the different individuals outweigh the differences, and a humanization process is underway.

Nice Colorful Plots, But What Does it Mean to Me Today?

Each of us has a choice in the way we view people from other groups. We could choose to focus on a dividing property (like praying in mosques) or on a property like height, making the differences disappear, humanization to take place, and empathy and compassion to naturally occur. This choice is one that each of us can make every day in the way we think about people from other religions, other countries, other races, or other cultures. Humanization goes both ways. If today we choose to show others how similar we are to them instead of how different, we may prove their dehumazing thoughts wrong, break the vicious cycle of dehumanization, and prevent tomorrow’s violence by creating a situation that reduces the motivation for conflict.

On the day that this post was finalized, more than a thousand Muslims formed a protective human ring around a synagogue in Norway. This beautiful act of humanization was a response to the attack on the synagogue in Denmark a few days before. In an interview, the event organizers made the following statement, distilling much that has been written about humanization into a concise and actionable message: “Humanity is one and we are here to demonstrate that”.

Humanity comes in many flavors and colors, but it is indeed one. And in today’s global climate is our personal duty to demonstrate it.