The Psychology of Division: An Interview with Juliana Schroeder
01-07-2019 12:35pm

The Psychology of Division: An Interview with Juliana Schroeder

Juliana Schroeder studies how we judge one another—and what we can do to keep inevitable disagreements from becoming unbridgeable divides.

Picture this: You’re scrolling through your newsfeed when you come across a heated discussion thread. The topic is controversial – something you feel strongly about.

As you scan the back-and-forth, it becomes apparent that the majority opinion is not your own.

You can’t help but keep scrolling – past the emotional arguments, past the non-sequiturs, past the uninformed opinions. “These people have no idea what they’re talking about,” you say to yourself.

For a moment, you consider telling them why they’re wrong, then decide it’s a lost cause. They’re so far off, you think, that they probably don’t have the mental capacity to understand your reasoning.

You pat yourself on the back for not engaging, but what you may not realize is that you’ve taken the first step down a slippery path – into a common, everyday form of thinking that other people are somehow “less” than you are yourself.

Juliana Schroeder, an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business, is interested in this phenomenon—a mild but insidious form of dehumanization– because it sheds light on how our inevitable disagreements turn into polarization. 

At a time when there’s no shortage of topics to disagree on, or ways to share our opinions, the risks of deepening our societal divides are real. We talked to Schroeder about the psychological underpinnings of dehumanization and what we can do to overcome it.   


Tell us how you became interested in this field of research.

I’ve always been fascinated by the irrational decisions that people make and how people make inferences about each other.

My research is informed by this interesting paradox: We live in a completely social world where we have to interact with people every day, yet no-one else’s mind is ever completely known to us. This lack of access can lead us to misunderstand others’ minds—their thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and beliefs.

What’s wrong with making inferences about what someone else is thinking?

One of the things I’ve documented is that because people can’t directly read another person’s mind, their mind seems less vivid and therefore weaker. That’s what we call the “lesser mind problem.”

Psychologically, we don’t go around assuming that other people don’t have minds at all, we just tend to think of other minds as being less vivid and weaker than our own.

How does this relate to emotion?

One example of the lesser mind problem is that people think they feel emotions more strongly than other people do. This is even true for negative emotions. The “spotlight effect” is where people think they feel more guilt and shame and embarrassment than other people do.

But it all comes down to the psychological phenomenon that people think of themselves as having more ability to experience emotion and reason through things than do others. The “lesser minds problem” is part of the psychology that underlies dehumanization.

What is dehumanization, and how is it relevant to the average person?

There are two different types of dehumanization: a human compared to an animal or a human compared to an object. What people think separates humans from other animals and objects is their mental capacity—their ability to process things both cognitively (in the case of animals) and also emotionally (in the case of objects). For example, artificial intelligence has better computing power, but it can’t feel emotions the way that we can. All of that is under the umbrella of dehumanization.

It’s important in our current world because people tend to dehumanize those with whom they disagree. There’s a subtle form of dehumanization that happens all the time, “things revolve more around me than around you,” which we also call egocentrism.

It’s not the form of dehumanization that you’ve probably heard of that can cause atrocities like genocides. It’s a common, everyday form of thinking that other people are “less” than you are yourself.

So we dehumanize those we disagree with?

Yes, and some research suggests that it’s getting worse over time in America.

A classic example is when a person considers someone else to be in an “outgroup” that they are opposed to for some reason, maybe they are a different nationality, race, gender, or political orientation.

I’ve done some research, and others have as well, showing that if someone disagrees with you on an issue that you care about, you tend to think of them not just as having a different perspective, but also having the wrong perspective.

You say to yourself, “They must be thinking about this the wrong way, and if they’re thinking about that issue the wrong way, they’re probably thinking about other issues the wrong way as well. So maybe they just have weaker mental capacity in lots of ways.”

In a time fraught with disagreement, how can we minimize dehumanization?

That is where my research on language comes in. I think of language as a means by which people communicate what’s on their mind to others. It’s a very good method – we’ve used it successfully for a very long time. But there are different components of language that you can pick apart.

There are verbal components, the words I’m trying to communicate to you; nonverbal components, which are things like tone of voice, the rate of speech, the volume in the voice; and then there is visual information, which includes eye contact, facial expression, and body language.

All of these different streams of information provide insight into a person’s mind. You can think about how each one of those streams might give you different types of information and might change your inferences about a person.

My research examines how adding nonverbal information on top of verbal information broadly affects the inferences that we make about another person’s mind. For example, how does seeing a person speak, like in a video, lead you to form of a different impression of that person than only reading a transcript of their speech?

Can you describe an experiment?

In one experiment, we asked job candidates at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business to come to the lab and tell us why they should be hired for their preferred job. They did an elevator pitch; speaking and writing about the opportunity.

We had a separate set of people, about 200 evaluators, who were randomly assigned to watch a pitch video with audio; listen to a pitch without visuals; or read a pitch without audio or visuals. The actual semantic content was exactly the same, but what was different was how much nonverbal information the evaluators had about the person.

After that, the evaluators completed a survey about what they thought about the job candidates—in particular, how smart they seemed, how competent they seemed, how likeable they seemed—on a scale of 1 to 10. We then asked the evaluators if they would be interested in hiring that person.

What did the research tell you?

What we find is that people think the candidates they can hear are smarter —more intelligent, more rational, and more competent —than the ones whose pitches they read but could not hear. We also found that when you see them and hear them, the evaluations are the same as hearing them.

This told us a couple of things:

One, people are using information beyond semantic content to make their assessments of the candidates.

Two, there seems to be a systematic bias to evaluate a person as more mentally capable when you hear their voice.

And three, it’s not just that having more information makes a person seem more mentally capable. You might argue there is just more information when you can hear someone speak, but when you add even more, such as visual information, it doesn’t really change anything. So, the effect of language on mental capacity seems to be unique to speaking in particular.

I have spent a lot of my career trying to understand why hearing a person talk makes them seem smarter than reading what they have to say.

If voice communication is less likely to lead to dehumanization, does that mean technologies that allow us to communicate via text, like social media, are changing us for the worse?

[The Internet] may make it easier to dehumanize people and to think of them as less mentally capable because it increases interactions via text instead of speech. It’s probably changing the ways in which we make evaluations of each other and the inferences we draw. I think we should be a little bit concerned about the consequences of that. What does that mean in terms of having respect for each other and having civil discourse?

I think making those connections is probably the next step in my research. What interventions might lead people to be more likely to interact with others via speech instead of text?

How has your work influenced your own behavior?

It makes me more cognizant about how the communication medium affects the way I interact with others and how I am perceived. I usually think twice about sending emails/text messages and consider picking up the phone instead.

Stacey Kennelly Nester

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