People perceived as high in self-control tend to be dehumanized as more robotic and machine-like, according to new research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. The findings provide evidence that this form of “robotic dehumanization” can have detrimental social consequences.
“We all have encountered situations that require self-control – e.g., choosing to study for an exam instead of saying yes to a party, ordering a healthy salad instead of a burger and fries,” said study authors Samantha Lapka and Franki Kung, a PhD student at The Ohio State University and an assistant professor at Purdue University, respectively.
“While people tend to see self-control as an ‘internal affair’, our research team is curious about whether our ability to regulate ourselves actually affects how others view us. In particular, from personal anecdotal observations, we have seen those who rigidly stick to their goals get treated differently by their peers.”
“High self-control friends and co-workers are described as driven and determined yet also uptight, cold, uninteresting, formulaic, and mechanical – it’s almost like people are describing a robot! These negative connotations really got us interested, because the self-control literature rarely speaks to negative consequences of exercising self-control. We want to know scientifically whether our observations are true.”
The researchers conducted six online studies involving 2,007 participants.
For their first two studies, the researchers asked participants to identify two acquaintances of different levels of self-control. The participants then rated each of their acquaintances’ level of self-control, warmth, and competence. They also indicated the degree to which they thought words like “machine” and “robotic” applied to their acquaintances and their level of interest in spending time with them.
Individuals perceived as higher in self-control tended to be viewed as more robotic. In turn, participant tended to be less interested in hanging out with acquaintances who were more robotic. This was true even after controlling for perceived warmth and competence.
But the findings only provided evidence for a correlational relationship between self-control and robotic-dehumanization. To test for causal effects, the study authors conducted additional research that manipulated a target person’s level of self-control.
For their next two studies, the researchers randomly assigned participants to imagine a person who held themselves to either an extremely high level of self-control or an average level of self-control. The researchers then asked the participants to report their perceptions of the person.
The authors expanded on this methodology in two more studies, in which participants were randomly assigned to read one of the eight descriptions about a person who showed either high or average self-control related to school, work, health, or personal development.
The studies consistently found that having higher self-control was associated with being seen as more robotic. This robotic dehumanization was linked to perceptions that these people are less warm and sociable than others.
“There is no debate on the wide range of positive outcomes self-control can bring, but we have only scratched the surface of the potential downsides of exercising self-control – namely, being viewed as robot-like, which can potentially lead to negative social treatments for that person,” Lapka and Kung told PsyPost.
“This work also highlights the social issue of people seeing or describing others as ‘less than human,’ (i.e., dehumanization); whether it’s intentional or unintentional, it could have harmful consequences. This work reminds us of the importance and basic respect of treating people as humans.”
But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“One question that still needs to be investigated is how/if this robotic-dehumanization occurs in other types of relationships,” Lapka and Kung said. “Our studies focused on acquaintances the participants identified and strangers they read descriptions of, so it would be interesting to test this effect within closer relationships such as co-workers, friends and family, and romantic partners.”
“Additionally, social contexts, culture, and company mantras (e.g., professionalism) that promote robotic-dehumanization of people may exacerbate harmful social outcomes and should be investigated moving forward.”
The study, “Determined Yet Dehumanized: People Higher in Self-Control Are Seen as More Robotic“, was authored by Samantha P. Lapka, Franki Y. H. Kung, Justin P. Brienza, and Abigail A. Scholer.