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Dehumanising: how students reject candidate housemates

Being rejected always hurts, but so does having to reject someone. Social psychologists have discovered that at interviews to select suitable housemates students dehumanise candidates to make it easier to reject them. That may sound harsh but, according to the researchers, it is also logical.

Finding people to take part in research on social exclusion is harder than you might think. ‘Excluding a person is something we really don’t like doing,’ says social psychologist  Gert-Jan Lelieveld. ‘In general, we humans have a strong norm of inclusion; from a very young age we learn that it is not nice to exclude another person and it makes us feel uncomfortable.’  It was difficult to get people to willingly reject another person in a lab environment, so Lelieveld and his colleagues decided to move their research to situations where rejection is unavoidable. For example, in student houses where there is just one room available and there are ten students hoping to have that room.   


So, how do people reject others? To find out, the researchers attended housemate interviews in 15 Leiden student houses. When the discussions with the hopeful students came to an end, the residents of the student houses – 130 students in total -  were each given separate surveys to complete. Lelieveld: ‘One of these was a validated questionnaire that measures the degree of dehumanisation.’  Dehumanisation is denying the humanity of the other person, often to justify an act of violence or exclusion. It’s something that happens in wars, in discrimination or bullying in the school playground. ‘By dehumanising a person, you create a distance between you which makes it easier to reject them.’

'By dehumanising someone, you create distance and it becomes easier to reject someone'


The students filled in the survey while considering their most and least favourite candidate of the evening. ‘The survey included some quite off-the-wall questions like: I see the other person more as a robot than a human being. But also questions like: 'I see the other person as warm and empathetic.' When the surveys were analysed, it was found that students rated the people they intended to reject significantly more negatively and saw them as 'less human' than their favourite candidates.

WhatsApp or phone call?

The students were also asked about how they planned to reject the unsuccessful candidates: by phone or just with a quick WhatsApp?  ‘The findings showed that the students would be more likely to let the candidates they were going to reject know by such impersonal methods as an app or email.’  The ones they were more enthusiastic about could expect a personal call.  ‘So, here too, you see that students choose a more distant means of communication, presumably to make the rejection emotionally easier for themselves.'

The researchers did not measure how the group of students then made their final choice together. Lelieveld: 'We really wanted to map purely what process people went through themselves, and didn’t look further into the group dynamics.'

'Doctors sometimes create some distance between themselves and patients in order to do their job better'

No worries

The students who took part in the research have not yet seen the results, but, according to Lelieveld, they need have no concerns about their moral compass. 'At first glance, the conclusion may be a bit of a shock, but what we actually saw is that people who scored highly on rejection aversion, i.e. who find it difficult to reject others, are more likely to dehumanise the other person. That points to it being a tool to help you do what you really don't want to do.' Indeed, dehumanising is not necessarily always a bad thing. Lelieveld: 'Doctors are also known to sometimes create some distance between themselves and patients in the same way in order to do their job better. Overly empathetic doctors may not be as good at their jobs.' So, this form of dehumanisation is, in some cases, a very human trait.

Want to know more about this research?

This study was recently published as a paper in Current Research in Ecological and Social Psychology. The paper, You are not selected: Two field studies on the association between dehumanization and social rejection, was written by Gert-Jan Lelieveld, Marret Noordewier, Frank Doolaard and Eric van Dijk.

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