Decoding Dehumanization

A New Approach to Reduce Inter-Religious Violence

Dehumanization – perceiving other people as less than human – has accompanied mass atrocities and conflict throughout history. Why? Dehumanization removes the moral prohibition against violence, genocide, and systemic discrimination – thereby enabling them to occur. Leaders use dehumanizing rhetoric as a tool to normalize group-targeted harm of vulnerable populations.

Many groups – ranging from Black Lives Matter to the UN Special Envoy on the Prevention of Genocide –  recognize dehumanization as a critical factor to be addressed. Still, they have limited evidence-based tools to detect, disrupt it, and prevent its harmful consequences. 

Research led by Beyond Conflict and our scientific partners with over 10,000 people in 12 countries helped identify the psychological processes and brain mechanisms that underlie and shape dehumanization. 

The research found that in every cultural context surveyed, at least one group was significantly dehumanized, and blatant dehumanization was one of the strongest predictors of intergroup hostility in every country examined. It predicted attitudes and policy support related to targeting civilians, support for collective punishment, and war.

These insights are in a policy brief for practitioners and policymakers, released by Beyond Conflict in 2019, that advances understanding of dehumanization and suggests real-world applications for violence prevention. Following this policy brief release, we began to pilot a new intervention in Nigeria to detect and reduce dehumanization between Christians and Muslims. 

Understanding and Countering Dehumanization in Nigeria

Since 1999, over 10,000 Nigerians have been killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians according to data from the U.S. State Department. Particularly in the Middle Basin and northern part of the country, lives were lost, homes destroyed, and mosques and churches burned due to this inter-religious conflict. 

Ahead of potentially violent regional elections, we launched a baseline study in the country, to measure dehumanization and understand the relationship between dehumanization and violence. In June 2019, Beyond Conflict and our local partner, Peace Initiatives Network, held a workshop with 25 peace-builders, media professionals, and researchers to share the study findings and work together on a solution. Together we co-designed a dehumanization-detection tool, and a strategic communication intervention – a radio program – to counter dehumanization and support for violence in Nigeria.

We worked with Equal Access International to translate the outputs from this workshop into a radio program that would resonate with the local audience. Through a randomized control trial, our team evaluated how effective they were in one of the most contentious areas in the Middle Basis of Nigeria – Kaduna – a hotspot for violence between Christians and Muslims over the last two decades. 

Our research shows that: 

  • Despite high levels of dehumanization and threat perceptions, Christians and Muslims were willing to interact with each other and said many positive things about each other. 
  • The program effectively reduced support for inter-religious violence and animosity between Christians and Muslims. This included reducing the perception of the other group as a threat and associating them with negative traits such as violence, immorality and fanaticism. 

In partnership with Arewa24, a Nigerian satellite television channel, we are now leveraging and incorporating these findings into a mass communication intervention that reaches 40 million Nigerians. We are measuring its impact by conducting another randomized control trial. 

In parallel, we have trained the heads of local peace-building organizations all around Nigeria in media engagement strategies. These trainings and our continued work with them is helping to equip them with the tools that they need to create and amplify narratives that may serve as a firewall against dangerous dehumanizing rhetoric used by political and social leaders to foster violence between groups.

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