How we dehumanize cyclists, the obese and everyone not like us

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How we dehumanize cyclists, the obese and everyone not like us

A new study has found that more than half of car drivers think cyclists are not completely human, with a link between the dehumanization of bike riders and acts of deliberate aggression towards them on the road.

Another study this week found that the same dehumanization process exists for people suffering from obesity.

The motorist/cyclist study is the first to look at a road-user group with the problem of dehumanization, which is typically studied in relation to attitudes towards racial or ethnic groups. But if drivers can put a human face to cyclists, researchers say this could reduce aggression directed at cyclists and road trauma involving riders.

What the researchers say: The study, involving 442 Australian respondents, identified people’s attitude to cyclists and whether they were cyclists or non-cyclists themselves.

Participants in the study were given either the iconic evolution of ape to man image, or an adaption of that image showing the stages of evolution from cockroach to human. Lead author said the insect-human scale was designed for the study because of the many informal slurs against cyclists comparing them to “cockroaches” or “mosquitoes”.

On both ape-human and insect-human scales, 55 per cent of non-cyclists and 30 per cent of cyclists rated cyclists as not completely human.

Acts of aggression towards cyclists were not uncommon, with 17 per cent saying they had used their car to deliberately block a cyclist, 11 per cent had deliberately driven their car close to a cyclist and 9 per cent had used their car to cut off a cyclist.

“When you don’t think someone is ‘fully’ human, it’s easier to justify hatred or aggression towards them. This can set up an escalating cycle of resentment,” the lead author said. If cyclists feel dehumanized by other road users, they may be more likely to act out against motorists, feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy that further fuels dehumanization against them.

“Ultimately we want to understand this process so we can do a better job at putting a human face to people who ride bikes, so that hopefully we can help put a stop to the abuse.”

The researchers noted that the study revealed that the problem of dehumanization on the roads was not just a case of car driver versus cyclist. “The bigger issue is that significant numbers of both groups rank cyclists as not 100 per cent human,” they said.

“Amongst people who ride and amongst people who don’t ride, there are still people who think that cyclists aren’t fully human,” the researchers noted. “The dehumanization scale is associated with the self-reporting of direct aggression.

“Using your car to deliberately block a cyclist, using your car to deliberately cut off a cyclist, throwing an object at a cyclist—these acts of direct aggression are dangerous.”

The lead author said there was a growing push to avoid the word cyclist, which many viewed with negative connotations. “Let’s talk about people who ride bikes rather than cyclists because that’s the first step towards getting rid of this dehumanization,” she said.

In the other study on the way people dehumanize people suffering from obesity the researchers found that participants on average rated people with obesity as ‘less evolved’ and human than people without obesity. Blatant dehumanization was most common among thinner participants but was also observed among participants who would be medically classed as being ‘overweight’ or ‘obese.’

People who blatantly dehumanized those with obesity were more likely to support health and other policies that discriminate against people because of their weight.

The lead author of this study said: “This is some of the first evidence that people with obesity are blatantly dehumanized. This tendency to consider people with obesity as ‘less human’ reveals the level of obesity stigma.

“It’s too common for society to present and talk about obesity in dehumanizing ways, using animalistic words to describe problems with food (e.g. ‘pigging out’) or using images that remove the dignity of people living with obesity. Obesity is a complex problem driven by poverty and with significant genetic, psychological and environmental components. Blatant or subtle dehumanization of any group is morally wrong and in the context of obesity, what we also know is that the stigma surrounding obesity is actually a barrier to making long-term healthy lifestyle changes.”

So, what? A guru of mine once said that as soon as we start generalizing about people, we begin the dehumanizing process because they cease to be individuals. It becomes easier to legislate against them, do them physical harm or even exterminate them—as if they were vermin of some kind. And we can all be generalized.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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