Research shows high self-control is seen as dehumanizing

Most of us know — and likely have envied — a list-making, highly productive co-worker who is quietly on task. As the epitome of self-restraint, this low-key colleague meets or beats every deadline without a hint of drama.

But even as we admire these co-workers’ discipline and self-control, it’s possible — even likely — that we aren’t seeking them out to join us for lunch or to socialize after work.

Purdue University-led research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science has found people who are perceived as high or very high in self-control tend to be viewed as more robotic than those with less self-control. This robotic dehumanization was linked to perceptions that these people are less warm and sociable than others.

The Purdue authors, Franki Yk Hei Kung, assistant professor of psychological sciences and Samantha Lapka, a postbaccalaureate researcher, oversaw six separate, related online surveys involving 2,007 subjects to both gather and confirm their findings. Kung and Lapka also worked with researchers Justin Brienza of the University of Queensland Business School and Abigail Scholer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

The Purdue researchers within the College of Health and Human Sciences say the findings are novel, in that they highlight negative consequences for high self-control, which is universally seen as beneficial.

“Plenty of research has shown the positive individual benefits of high self-control, but very little empirical research has investigated the downsides of these perceptions,” Lapka says. “Typically, self-control lapses are seen as undesirable, but people’s struggles with self-control may also be part of how they are seen as fully human. The findings raise questions regarding the nuanced and even paradoxical nature of human perceptions of self-control and its consequences and indeed the nature of self-control at large.”

Lapka also says reliable, highly disciplined workers can suffer in other ways because they tend to be given more work than others: “For example, if performance expectations, but not social recognition and support, are greater for employees with high self-control, they could be more vulnerable to health problems such as exhaustion and burnout.”

When the study findings are applied in a much broader context, Kung says, they raise sobering questions about human perceptions and treatment of others.

“This dehumanizing concept in psychology connects to a lot of really atrocious behavior,” he says. “History shows that people have relied on this idea to justify really horrible things like slavery and wars. Dehumanizing narratives used by leaders have justified treating refugees or minority groups differently because they are portrayed as less human.”

Kung says he hopes the results of these six studies can contribute to robust conversations and further study into human — and humane — perception and treatment of others.

“How do we make sure that we see everyone as human?” he asks. “How can we be careful and mindful of the ways that we are suddenly seeing other people as less than human and whether that’s actually good for society?”

Journal Article: Lapka, S. P., Kung, F. Y. H., Brienza, J. P., & Scholer, A. A. (2022). Determined Yet Dehumanized: People Higher in Self-Control Are Seen as More Robotic. Social Psychological and Personality Science.


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