Why We Hate

The rampage in Orlando was an act of hate. It's vitally important to our world that our response to it not be. You can indeed fight hate with love, and science tells us both a bit of how to do that, and why it is possible.

Research from my lab published a couple of years ago (Vilardaga, Estévez, Levin, Hayes, 2012) found that we enjoy being with other human beings if we meet three at least conditions. First, we have to have a sense of what it is like to be that other person. We have to be able to see the world, at least a little bit, through their eyes. Second, we need to feel their joys and sorrows. We need to feel what it is like to be them. Those two steps connect others to us - they bring others into our psychological group as whole human beings. Once they are there, they are "under our skin", so to speak, and the final process kicks in. We need to not run away psychologically speaking, even when it is hard. When people are different than us, we can feel a bit uncomfortable. When we see them hurt, we hurt. If you try to protect yourself against your own feelings you simply cannot afford the risk of loving and caring about others (I explain that part in this TEDx talk).

In three words we can enjoy and love others if we have the skills of perspective taking, empathy, and experiential openness.

But research also shows that we objectify and dehumanize people precisely when these same three skills are disturbed. A recent study from my lab (Levin, Luoma, Vilardaga, Lillis, Nobles, and Hayes, 2015) shows that if you look inside a large set of prejudices (the five we picked were prejudice against homosexuals, women, ethnic minorities, obese people, and people struggling with substance use) there is a common core of generalized prejudice that goes across all of them, and it is predicted by the same three processes. We judge and hate others when we cannot take their perspective, feel empathy for them, or sit inside our own emotions being with them.

These are not just correlations. A new study (Hooper, Erdogan, Keen, Lawton, & McHugh, 2015) shows if we train perspective taking, we are less likely to judge the behavior of others based on claimed dispositional characteristics, instead of their history and circumstances. This error is called "the fundamental attribution error" and it has been linked both to the psychology of terrorists, and to flaws in our media coverage of them.

And here we are, back to Orlando.

Already the reports are coming in. His father says the perpetrator could not stand to see men kissing. Unable to sit with that discomfort, he objectified, judged, and dehumanized them, egged on in his own mind by distortions of religious belief that gave a stamp of moral righteousness to his hate. As he mowed down dancers, you can be sure he did not see human beings, with feelings. He saw hated objects.

But we cannot escape these same questions and these same processes. We are inside our own pain. Pain for those killed and their friends and family. Pain for our gay brothers and sisters who once again are reminded of the hate others feel when they are unable to see their expressions of love with a sense of shared perspective, joy, and openness.

What will we do with that pain? Will we now rush to objectify and dehumanize the killer, or worse, our Muslim brothers and sisters?

Yes, we need to stand and fight - but the fight begins within. It is literally a battle between hate and love. If it is to be love, then crawl behind the eyes of the dancers and feel their horror. Go behind the eyes of their loved ones and weep openly. And then, touching your own prejudices within, go behind the eyes of a killer too disturbed by two men kissing to allow them to be human.