What 12 years a slave teaches about our minds

12 years a slave

A slave and your mind  

12 years a Slave won this year’s Best Picture Oscar, with its depiction of the abduction, often brutal slavery, and restoration to freedom of Solomon Northup.

You may not have seen it, but the psychology of it will be familiar.

In our last post we saw how telling lies is evidence of a developing theory of mind, as lies are the attempt by one mind to influence another. 12 years shows another aspect of recognizing one’s mind is unique and separate, which is the denigration, dismissal, or destruction of one mind by another.

What’s familiar about the psychology of it is that we all do it.

To understand how, we’re going to cram into one blog four famous experiments, prisons, electric shock, eagles, rattlesnakes, and children with differently colored eyes.


In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes the dehumanization practised by his Nazi captors while he was a prisoner of war.

Some prisoners managed to come through with their minds. Others had their minds broken. Frankl describes prisoners who, having lost hope in life, were the first to die, defeated not by starvation or disease, but by lack of hope. Their minds had been overcome, their resources overwhelmed.

As others would attest, Frankl’s experiences are not unique, and nor are these experiences found only in Auschwitz, or even only in the Holocaust. The same forms of behavior are recorded in communist regimes, dictatorships, interrogation routines, gang wars, prison, and most places where one group is in a position of power over another and there might be few or only gentle consequences for those in charge. Abu Ghraib is perhaps a contemporary example.

These behaviors seem beyond the pale for most people.

Unless you’re Philip Zimbardo.

The Stanford Prison experiment

They might seem extreme behaviors, but in his classic Stanford Prison experiment, psychologist Philip Zimbardo showed these same dehumanizing behaviors could be swiftly and powerfully created and manifested, even in an artificial situation.

Zimbardo’s now famous experiment with a group of college students randomly allocated to be either a guard or a prisoner inside Zimbardo’s fake prison raised a number of issues. Crucially, it showed how a seemingly innocuous group of college students could, in the right context, become feared and despised prison guards, displaying the behaviors we’re talking about here.

One of the key outcomes of behavior like this, in which we devalue, denigrate, or dehumanize the mind of another, is that it creates a psychological distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’, by establishing or increasing the sense of superiority one has over another.

It’s an important concept.

Electric shocks

In Stanley Milgram’s equally famous electric shock experiments, he demonstrated a critical effect of psychological distance. (Geographical distance is also relevant and helps contribute to psychological distance.)

Milgram showed that creating psychological distance, which we do in various ways, such as by enlarging the physical distance between people, by elevating oneself, by denigrating another, by making them less human – that is less capable, inferior or defective some way – allows us to perpetrate harm.

It does so because the distance we create insulates us from, and allows us to be less cognizant of, the mind of the other. It allows us to believe or to consider that the other doesn’t have a mind as good as ours, or that they don’t have a mind at all. They are less than us.

Inflicting harm becomes easier and easier. The greater the distance, the less obvious the consequences for us, so it’s easier to inflict harm, and the more harm we can inflict.

A little closer to home

These are extreme examples, but they make the point because they’re so clear. Zimbardo and Milgram both showed that we can inflict harm on another if the context is right, and we can do so through psychological distance.

You see these behaviors in war, genocide, enslavement, persecution, bigotry and prejudice. They’re perhaps the obvious examples.

You also see them in negative stereotypes, labels, ‘them vs us’ language, insults and name calling, which are the thin edge of the same wedge.

They are the representation that one mind is superior to another, because the other is less human, somehow defective, or otherwise generally unworthy.

You probably do it too, because you see it when we create in-groups and out-groups, at school, college, work, and even within families.

Here’s how easy it is.

You might remember these?

Eagles and Rattlers

It all looked like a normal 1954 summer camp, when the summer camp is organized by social psychologists like Muzafer Sherif that is. The Robber’s Cave is another classic, demonstrating how in-group and out-group behaviors developed, and the resulting progression of behavior. Sherif’s intent was to create and then resolve intergroup conflict.

Simply, two groups of boys attended a summer camp at Robber’s Cave, not knowing there was another group. When this was revealed, each group quickly adopted a name (Eagles and Rattlers) and began a process of us versus them, in-group and out-group behavior that would degenerate from competitiveness to insults, to raiding each other’s campsite, to developing weapons (rocks in socks), to physical confrontation where boys had to be forcibly restrained from each other.

The process followed a familiar, deteriorating pattern as each group sought to establish their superiority and the other’s inferiority.

And there’s this…

Jane Elliott and the blue-eyed/brown-eyed children

In response to the shooting of Martin Luther King, and in an exercise designed to promote discussion of racism, teacher Jane Elliot devised this in-class experiment. The concept comes from Mila 18, Leon Uris’ 1961 novel about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Uris’ book, one way of determining who went to the gas chamber was eye color.

On Friday, April 5, in her classroom of eight year olds, Elliot designated blue-eyed children as superior, and had them wrap collars around the necks of brown-eyed children, identifying them as the inferior minority. Blue-eyed children received special privileges at school (more food, access to the new climbing frame) and were encouraged to play only with other blue-eyed kids.

She prohibited shared drinking fountains, and highlighted negative aspects of the brown-eyed children.

While she encountered resistance, this melted when she told them that the melanin that made kids blue-eyed, was linked to their superior intelligence and learning.

Subsequently, the ‘superior’ children became bossy, arrogant and offensive, while their academic performance improved, including on tasks that had previously been too hard. The ‘inferior’ children became submissive, timid and subservient, and their grades dropped, including on tasks that had previously been easy.

They were only eight.

It took less than a day.

Have a look.

So here’s the take home bit

Minds are powerful things.

These things we do,  in minimizing others, racial insults, denigrating comments, sexism, office bullying, marginalizing family members, negative stereotyping and so on, create a psychological distance that facilitates further infliction of harm.

How did you learn it?

What are you modelling?

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Theory of mind, dehumanization

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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