These days Adam Waytz doesn’t have far to look for rich research material. Interest in his award-winning scholarship — which uses social psychology and cognitive neuroscience to analyze ethics, intergroup behavior, and social media — is booming.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world, and my research tries to address that,” says Waytz, management and organizations. He is interested in how one’s ability to perceive the mental states of other people affects one’s willingness to humanize or dehumanize those same people. The research has broad implications for understanding not just interpersonal behavior but also interactions between people and technology, such as automated workplaces or self-driving cars.
“What usually happens when we think about technology,” says Waytz, “is that the technology experts weigh in — the roboticists, the software engineers — and then the economists tell us about the impact on the labor market. But I try to get at how people psychologically respond to technology.”
Getting at the psychology of intergroup conflicts is also a focus of investigation for Waytz, a Minneapolis native. The current state of US political discourse, bitterly polarized by the issues and outcomes of the 2016 presidential election, is proving to be fertile ground for him. Together with Kellogg School of Management colleague and research partner Nour Kteily, Waytz is finding that the impulse to dehumanize individuals or groups (or, conversely, to humanize them) exists on a spectrum.
“It’s not like turning a light switch on. It’s more like adjusting a dimmer where you see gradations of humanity,” says Waytz, who is writing a book, The Power of Human, that examines dehumanizing trends and ways to counter them. He points out that some attempts to dehumanize are overt — such as the demonization of Muslims in the US or the Roma in Hungary; but sometimes the dynamics are subtler, as when we attribute negative motivations to our foes while praising our own impulses.
“In my work with Democrats and Republicans, one side will say, ‘We are much more motivated by love of our own than by hatred of the other,’ but meanwhile they claim that the other side is driven primarily by hatred. What they are really suggesting is that the other side is incapable of complex emotions like love and only capable of base emotions. This is a form of dehumanization, too,” says Waytz.
This bias shows up in many conflicts — from those between Palestinians and Israelis to those pitting Republicans against Democrats. Waytz thinks such partisan groups may be defining what they “love” in terms shaped by their respective ideologies. Conservatives may empathize with smaller, more constrained and defined groups such as the family, while liberals may express empathy with more dispersed, permeable groups such as friends “or the entire world, rather than the nation,” says Waytz.
Think Before You Hate
Neuroscience offers a potential solution for tribal animosities: getting people to think harder about others. “It’s not a very flashy idea,” Waytz admits, but it has great promise. Neuroimaging shows that when subjects in a brain scanner are encouraged to do nice things for others — such as donating money or sharing resources — areas of the brain associated with reward and pleasure are activated.
“This suggests that prosocial behavior is kind of rewarding in itself and can be sustained,” says Waytz. Similarly, his research shows that certain regions of the “social brain” are more active when subjects are instructed to consider the mental states of others. “The more active these regions are, the kinder these people behave once they leave the brain scanner,” he says. When these prosocial regions are not activated, in contrast, behavior tends to be more selfish.
Part of Waytz’s current book project explores the potential role of mindfulness in producing better behavior, though he concedes that time for reflection is hard to come by in today’s fast-paced world. But the benefits may be worth the effort: “If you get people to think harder, engage more deliberately, and be more accurate in their deliberations, they do seem to become more charitable toward the other side,” he says.
In addition to his book-related research, Waytz is co-leading a National Science Foundation–funded project that investigates differences in our capacity to assess others’ mindsets when we are competing with them versus when we are cooperating with them. He is also a contributor to the Trust Project at Northwestern, an interdisciplinary initiative that explores trust in research, business, and society.
Waytz’s research has earned him considerable distinction, including the 2008 and 2013 Theoretical Innovation Award from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology; the SAGE Foundation Young Scholar Award; and the International Social Cognition Network’s Early Career Award. Waytz says that working at a top business school helps keep him grounded in both practice and theory.
“Kellogg was very appealing to me,” says Waytz, who earned his MA and PhD degrees in psychology at the University of Chicago, then went to Harvard as a postdoctoral fellow before joining Northwestern. “At Kellogg I get to interact with a variety of scholars. Plus, business schools make you deeply consider how your research matters in the world. I like to be pushed to answer that question.”