Distance, Dehumanization, and Ethical Disengagement

Being mindful of the variety of ways we humans misunderstand each other is instrumental in promoting ethical systems. Salon.com recently featured an article titled The Psychology of Hate: How We Deny Human Beings Their Humanity from Ethical Systems contributor Nicholas Epley. The article is an excerpt from Professor Epley’s new book Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.

The Salon article focuses on how we misunderstand other people and how these errors in our thinking can lead to erroneous conclusions. For instance:

  • People dehumanize. We fail to give sufficient agency to others and consequently think that others have lesser minds than our own. Extreme examples of dehumanization make this clear, but dehumanizing others is actually a regular occurrence whenever there is psychological distance between two people.

  • Disengagement comes from distance. The further you are from someone emotionally the more you guess about. You also are more likely to fail to consider their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and wants. This makes it easier to fall into common thinking traps that make it hard to give sufficient consideration to the views of others.

Professor Epley also highlights a number of important ways we can mislead ourselves and misunderstand others. Key takeaways include safeguards you can use to ensure you’re not falling prey to common thinking traps. While “the psychology of hate” may seem a bit distant from the subject of business ethics, it is actually a scaled-up version of the ethical fading phenomenon detailed by Ethical Systems contributors Ann Tenbrunsel and Max Bazerman on our decision-making page. Stay tuned for more on Professor Epley’s new book, a summary of which will soon be featured on our books page.

For additional research and ideas relevant to the topics covered in this article, please see our discussions of contextual influences, fairness, and personality and personnel.