Some individuals treat poor people like animals – study

Poor person begging in the streets
People of low socioeconomic status are dehumanised by certain parts of the population.
Source: University of Granada

A study from the University of Granada finds that some individuals regard poor people more like animals than humans and refuse to help, blaming them for their circumstances.

A PhD thesis developed at the University of Granada (UGR) has been announced the winner of the IV (2020) Research Prize for Young Doctors, organised by the Spanish Scientific Society of Social Psychology. It concludes that people of low socioeconomic status are dehumanised by certain parts of the population as if they were inferior beings with traits more characteristic of animals (for example, irrationality or impulsiveness) than human beings, for example, by being irrational or impulsive.

The current rise in economic inequality that we are witnessing in society hits those with low socioeconomic status hardest. Despite this reality, many people oppose public policies that seek to reduce inequality, for example by redistributing wealth from the individuals and/or groups with the most to those who have the least. This study sought to understand the factors that might be influencing this opposition to public policies designed to help the most vulnerable in our society.

“We started from the basis of previous work, in which we identified that people with a low socioeconomic status are dehumanised by others,” said Rosa Rodríguez Bailón.

“Specifically, poor people and/or groups are seen by certain parts of the population as inferior beings and as having traits that are more characteristic of animals (such as irrationality or impulsiveness) than human beings. This ‘animalised’ perception of the poorest groups could, according to our hypothesis, be one of the factors that influence how people perceive poverty and their support for, or opposition to, public policies that seek to help this population.”

Animal traits

The researchers conducted two studies (one correlational and the other experimental) in which they asked a sample of 523 subjects between 18 and 65 years of age to what extent they considered people with a low socioeconomic status to have characteristics typically associated with human beings – or conversely, more typically associated with animals.

The authors also included measures designed to illuminate what the sample believed to be the reasons why some people find themselves in a situation of poverty, and to what extent the sample considered that policies favour of greater economic equality should be supported.

The results showed that the more an individual tends toward ‘animalising’ poor people, the more they are likely to oppose the implementation of redistributive economic policies. The relationship between these variables seems to be explained by the causes to which people attribute poverty.

“Specifically, the more people ‘animalise’ the poor, the more they blame them for their dire circumstances,” Bailón added. “This is because people largely consider poverty to be the result of certain traits that they perceive to be characteristic of the poor (for example, that they do not want a job or that they are lazy). At the same time, they minimise the role of external factors, such as the difficulty of finding work or the effect of economic recessions).”

In general, these results show how the dehumanisation of the poor influences our interpretation of the causes of poverty and how this, in turn, impacts on our support for, or objection to, wealth distribution policies.

Full bibliographic information

Sainz, M., Martínez, R., Sutton, R. M., Rodríguez-Bailón, R., & Moya, M. (2020). ‘Less human, more to blame: Animalizing poor people increases blame and decreases support for wealth redistribution’, Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 23(4), 546–59. Onlinme (Paywall: https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430219841135; supplementary materials

The PhD thesis of Mario Sainz Martínez was supervised by Professors Rosa Rodríguez Bailón and Miguel Moya Morales of the UGR’s Department of Social Psychology. Rocío Martínez, a lecturer at the Department, also contributed to the study.