I’ve written before about how I think a lot of people’s antipathy towards the benefits system comes from their ideas about the sort of people benefits claimants are. That they are a special, different sort of person that is unworthy of help. There’s a horrible sort of circularity to it – being the kind of person who claims benefits makes you exactly the kind of person who doesn’t deserve them.
Anyway, in reading around this subject for my day job, I came across some really fascinating work on something called infrahumanization. Infrahumanization is a very similar idea to the more familiar concept of dehumanization. In fact, it is explicitly framed as a milder form of this process. Infrahumanization means not going as far as denying someone’s essential humanity, but still denying them the full, subtle, complex humanity that ‘we’ possess. Groups that are ‘infrahumanized’ are not felt to have the same range of emotional experiences as other people. Specifically, while people find it easy to imagine them feeling ‘basic’ emotions like anger, pleasure or sadness; they have trouble picturing them experiencing more complex feelings like awe, hope, mournfulness, or admiration. This is a very important idea – if people are denied the same rich, subtle inner lives that we have, then it is that much easier to see them hurt and do nothing. After all, they don’t really feel it the same way we do.
This is a relatively new area of research (begun by two researchers at the University of Louvain; Jacque-Philippe Leyens and Stephanie Demoulin), and so far it has focused on people’s feelings about outgroups in general – mostly using ethnic or national groups. However, what struck me was how closely these ideas fit with the stereotypes people seem to hold about benefit claimants and ‘chavs’ (for non British readers unfamiliar with the term, a quick Google search will provide a solid, if unpleasant, education). They are widely pictured as grunting, shouting, semi-human oafs. In mental terms mostly only of aggression and the sort of low cunning required to cheat the benefits system.
You can try it for yourself. Imagine the most stereotypical ‘chav’ you can. Imagine their clothes, their surroundings, their posture, their attitude. Now imagine them feeling surprise, anger, or fear. Easy right? Well now imagine them experiencing reverence, melancholy, or fascination. If you found that just as easy, congratulations. But I’d bet for a few of you it was just that bit harder. I’m ashamed to admit it was for me.
So far, there hasn’t been any direct research looking specifically at whether people find it difficult to attribute complex emotions to benefit claimants (in the UK or elsewhere). However, the research that has been done is quite suggestive. Some existing studies have found that outgroup infrahumanization is stronger when the outgroup is of lower status (see here and here – journal subscriptions required). Most strikingly, there has also been mixed neuro and social science work at Princeton showing that the groups people find it most difficult to imagine experiencing complex emotions are those low status groups who are both disliked and disrespected (such as drug addicts and the homeless). This is a label that clearly applies to benefit claimants.
While we should wait for more direct evidence, I still think that infrahumanization is something we should bear in mind when thinking about people’s seemingly bottomless appetite for policies that harm benefit claimants. If people really don’t think of claimants as experiencing life with quite the same richness that they do, then combating such policies is going to be very, very hard indeed.