From Kindness to Cruelty: Katrina Fincher on the Duality of Human Nature

While countless writers, artists, and academics explore a certain duality in human nature, they tend to focus on the manifestation and effects of that divided self. Assistant Professor of Psychology Katrina Fincher asks a different question. She wants to know exactly what makes that duality possible within a single individual.

Within clinical psychology, this question is largely uncharted territory. “With a few exceptions, researchers have not examined the mechanisms which enable the same person to shift, quite rapidly, between kindness and cruelty,” she said.

While Fincher’s particular research interests developed during graduate school, they actually took root much earlier. Fincher’s mother grew up in Argentina during the country’s last military dictatorship (1976-1983), during which she saw her best friend kidnapped, her aunt imprisoned, and her cousin murdered. Her mother eventually started a new life in the U.S., where Katrina grew up. But summers were spent back in Argentina.

“From May to August, I lived in the shadow of [the regime’s] atrocities. However, most of the year I escaped to an idyllic American suburb, where I lived under the cushy regime of absent-minded academic parents and progressive schools, where safety was taken for granted and I had the luxury to learn empathy and compassion,” Fincher remembered.

That intimate experience of “emotional whiplash” – viewing firsthand the extent to which people could express capacities both for kindness and cruelty – fascinated her. But she never considered psychology research as career until she met her first mentor as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania – the legendary Paul Rozin.

“Paul is one of the most incredible people you will ever meet, and he has such a profound intellectual curiosity that he will make you excited about nearly any idea,” Fincher explained. Inspired by her work with Rozin, which centered on disgust, she decided to pursue graduate work in psychology at Penn with Professor Philip Tetlock. Once again, the working approach Tetlock had to his craft proved more important than his particular interests. “For me research typically starts with people and the degree of intellectual chemistry we have,” she said. “I love the way [Tetlock] thinks and approaches problems,” Fincher said.

Her doctoral dissertation explored perceptual dehumanization, and her research since has broadly centered around “a wide range of issues related to moral psychology” and “the psychological mechanisms which enable humans to live in cooperative social groups.”

Fincher’s overarching interest in the psychology of sociality branches off in two distinct but connected directions. The first concerns the psychological mechanisms that enable empathy or cruelty; the second, the ways in which individuals relate to social values and norms. These two are connected because, according to Fincher, “we deny personhood to fellow human beings in response to social cues in order to facilitate behavior that upholds social systems.” In this sense, understanding the capacity for extremes of compassion and cruelty means understanding both individual psychological processes as well as broader social ones.

Fincher explores what scientists call “perceptual humanization and dehumanization”; in particular, “the psychological mechanisms which enable people to treat one individual callously and another kindly.”

From Fincher, K.M., Tetlock, P.E. & Morris, M.W. (2017) Interfacing with Faces: Perceptual Humanization and Dehumanization, Current Directions in Psy. Sci.

As illustrated in the above graphic, much of her research looks at the way people perceive one another’s expressions. “Not surprisingly, what matters a great deal is how you engage with the individual’s face. People visually process faces in two qualitatively different ways.”

In a humanizing mode, an individual will take in the other’s face as a whole, generally focusing on the eyes. By contrast, in a dehumanizing mode the observer’s eyes will drift from feature to feature, showing an inability to think of the other in holistic, humanized terms. Demonstrating this difference experimentally has been one of Fincher’s main accomplishments to date.

Yet she is also interested in the larger question: What accounts for this difference? What makes it so that an individual gazes upon someone in such a dehumanizing light? According to Fincher, there are three larger reasons: to enforce norms and facilitate. punishment; to tolerate the suffering of others in situations of high moral conflict; and to enable strategic decision-making.

“We deny personhood to fellow human beings in response to social cues in order to facilitate behavior that upholds social systems,” Fincher stated. “Humanizing perceptions are elicited in a cooperative context and lead to empathy, compassion, and the desire to fulfill another’s needs even at a personal cost,” Fincher said. “In contrast, dehumanizing perceptions are elicited in competitive situations and function to disengage moral restraint and lead to callousness, indifference, and the desire to ignore another’s pain even for no personal gain.”

In other words, our perception of others is largely determined by the larger institutional or social context, wherein the main determinants are norms and values. Here Fincher makes another distinction between “social norms,” which mean the ordinary socially accepted standards for acceptable behavior, and “sacred values,” which refer to the deeper underlying principles that govern which behaviors become normative or not. Theorists have taken norms to change more speedily than the more fundamental sacred values for any given society. Fincher questions that consensus, however. “[My] work shows that although people claim sacred values are absolute they actually function very similarly to social norms,” she said — work that the Army Research Institute recently awarded $1.2 million.

Since earning her doctorate, Fincher has been a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Management at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. There, she continued her research into and published several journal articles on a number of psychological phenomena connection to social and moral psychology, including perceptual dehumanization as well as the sacralization of social norms.

During her first year at NSSR, Fincher will be teaching classes on exactly those topics. In Interpersonal Interactions in the fall, she’ll work with graduate students to take a closer look at conflict, the social attributions we make about others, and how a social environment influences how we think and communicate. In the spring, she’ll teach a broader survey on moral psychology, and how morality and moral issues connect to recent sociopolitical issues – topics at the heart of NSSR’s century-long work engaging in the most pressing issues of the day.