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Connection Disconnection: The Negative Consequences of Strong Social Connections

October 17, 2011

New research finds that people with strong social connections are more likely to dehumanize those outside their social circles

What leads people to exhibit hostile or even violent behavior toward others? New research by faculty at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Kellogg School of Management suggests that being socially connected increases the tendency to view others outside the group as less than human — and even treat them as such.

Although many studies have noted the personal benefits that strong social connections provide, such as increased self-esteem, happiness and physical health, it now appears that what is good for oneself may not be so good for others. Whether it is bullying in schools, gang violence or war detainees being tortured, these acts illustrate the negative consequences of strong social connections.

The research, co-authored by Nicholas Epley, the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science at Chicago Booth and Adam Waytz, assistant professor of management and organizations at Kellogg, finds that feeling socially connected may enable people to view others outside the group as subhuman. This suggests that the most tightly knit groups, from military units to athletic teams, may also be the most likely to treat their adversaries as subhuman animals.

“Being socially connected to close others has great benefits for one’s own physical and mental health,” the authors wrote. “But it also satiates the motivation to connect with others and can increase the perceived distance between us and them.” Rather than feeling animosity toward those outside one’s social circles, the research finds that people may instead think of outsiders as having diminished mental capacities, more like objects or animals than as fully-developed persons.

Predicting that feeling socially connected would increase the tendency to dehumanize more socially distant others, Waytz and Epley conducted four experiments to test their theory.

In the first three experiments the researchers found that participants who were thinking about a person close to them were more likely to dehumanize other people. Compared to the control group who were not asked to think about people they were close to, these participants either failed to attribute humanlike mental states or characteristics to distant others or reported that it is acceptable to treat others like animals.

In the fourth experiment participants were divided into two groups. Participants in the “connected” study group completed the study with a friend in the room; the others completed the study with a stranger in the room. Both groups were presented with photos of 11 individuals described as terrorist detainees responsible for plotting the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Participants then answered a series of questions, including the degree to which they found torture techniques such as waterboarding and electric shock acceptable.

The researchers found that the participants in the “connected” group who completed the study with a friend in the room “dehumanized the detainees significantly more than did participants in the control condition and were also significantly more willing to endorse harming them.”

Disconnection in the everyday

Beyond the most extreme cases of violence and inhumane treatment, this research suggests that there are considerably more varied and subtle consequences to dehumanization in everyday life — from harassment in the workplace to overly aggressive fans at sporting events to supporting aggressive government policies.

“Any factor that creates disconnection from others, such as power, socioeconomic status or anonymity, may therefore enable dehumanization by disengaging people from the minds of others,” the authors wrote. “The present research suggests that social connection is one such factor that can increase disengagement with the minds of more distant others, leading to a failure to see people as they really are.”

Epley has been a faculty member at Chicago Booth since 2005. Waytz received a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Chicago in 2009 before joining the faculty of the Kellogg School.

The study, “Social Connection Enables Dehumanization,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.