Friday, 26 June 2009

Do you love humanity?

"I love humanity but I hate people"
Edna St. Vincent Millay (American poet and playwright).

Psychology hasn't paid enough attention to the regard people have towards humanity - their "humanity-esteem". That's according to Michelle Luke and Gregory Maio whose new research suggests a person's view of humanity can have important social implications, for example affecting their proclivity for racism. If we think highly of humankind, it follows that we're less likely to have a negative attitude to other ethnic groups - after all, they're human too.

In an initial study, the researchers devised a new 10-item psychology questionnaire (featuring items like "On the whole I am satisfied with the evolution of humanity") and a single-item, 9-point scale version ("Overall, how favourable are you toward human beings in general?"). The researchers confirmed, with the help of hundreds of student participants, that humanity-esteem is a unidimensional construct and that it is related to, but not completely explained by, a person's feelings towards and beliefs about people, such as whether they tend to be trustworthy or not.

In further investigations, the researchers showed that people's humanity-esteem can be influenced by presenting them with images casting humankind in a positive light (e.g. a child kissing an older relative, with a strap-line celebrating the benefit of families) or in a negative light (e.g. a Palestinian man carrying a dying boy, with a strap-line blaming unrest for innocent deaths).

Moreover, increasing people's humanity-esteem with positive images was found to reduce their subsequent tendency to differentiate between groups, whilst negative images had the opposite effect. This has real-world implications, the researchers warned. "Because the media often emphasises the negative side of human nature, it may have a negative influence on humanity-esteem and increase problems of discrimination. Awareness of this potential effect should enter discussions of the ways in which events are covered." Luke and Maio end their paper with a call for more research on this topic. "Evaluations of humanity merit far more attention than they have received," they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgLUKE, M.L., & MAIO, G.R. (2009). Oh the humanity! Humanity-esteem and its social importance. Journal of Research in Personality, 43 (4), 586-601 DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2009.03.001

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Jordan said...

"On the whole I am satisfied with the evolution of humanity"

I'm not sure I can adequately express how ludicrous it is to rate a statement like that on a 9-point scale. It's like asking, "On a scale from 1 to 9, how good is the universe?" It's an insult to anyone who's had a reasonably deep thought in their life.

Anonymous said...

This article, and others like it, is the reason that nobody outside the profession takes pychology seriously.

Mr. Jones said...

I think this is actually important. Overall negative conception of humanity can be correlated with several disorders not limited to but including depression and psychopathy just to name 2 obvious candidates.

I'd be interested to see correlations of pathology compared to conceptualization of trust inside one's social system. I think trust conception could accurately predict pathology within family systems.

If we look at the Authoritarian Personality, this is a like construct distilled and does predict racist and anti-democratic attitudes. It is not a replication of the AP studies, but nonetheless supports that hypothesis.

Taking the larger view, trust in, or faith in humanity (depending on your personal view of this concept) may predict not only tolerance, but agency, social integration, appropriate social support systems, and egalitarian attitudes.

Granted, this is an abstraction, but easier to grasp than bean counting distractions or pseudo-neurological priming effects or psychotherapy discussed in terms of a neuron massage. While hemisphere priming may be true, it offers little in the way of applicable policy, professionalizes human interaction, and supports magical thinking.

In short, more like this is a good thing whether or not its potential is fully realized.

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