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Intergroup Metaphors

Summary and Keywords

Intergroup metaphors represent human groups as nonhuman entities, such as animals, objects, plants, or forces of nature. These metaphors are abundant, diverse in meanings, and frequently but not invariably derogatory. Intergroup metaphors may be explicitly represented in language or implicitly represented as nonconscious mental associations. Research and theory on dehumanization offer a useful perspective on these metaphors, and show that likening outgroups to animals is a particularly common phenomenon. Frequently, groups are metaphorically compared to disgusting or degrading animals during times of conflict, but people also tend to view members of outgroups as subtly more animal-like or primitive than their own group even in the absence of conflict.

Depending on the use of intergroup metaphors in the contexts of race, gender, social class, immigration, mental illness, and terrorism, intergroup metaphors can have damaging consequences for intergroup relations. Metaphors that represent some people as subhuman entities can diminish empathy and compassion for their suffering. Metaphors that represent certain groups as bestial or diabolical can enable violence, including support for harsh treatment by the state. Some metaphors not only promote violence and discrimination but also help people to legitimize violent behavior and injustice after the fact. Metaphors therefore offer an intriguing insight into the nature of intergroup relations, and how these relations are colored not only by positive or negative attitudes but also by dehumanizing perceptions.

Keywords: dehumanization, gender, race, groups, intergroup relations, metaphor, intergroup communication

In the psychology of intergroup relations, content tends to take a backseat to process. A great deal has been written about how perceptions of groups are formed and communicated, and rather less about how the representations of those groups are composed. Often, when content is referred to, it is flattened into a dimension of evaluation: stereotypes and impressions are positive or negative, and prejudices are, of course, simply negative. However, the study of human groups has to acknowledge that representations of groups go beyond positive and negative valence, and that the specific contents attached to particular groups must be communicated linguistically.

As soon as we think about how groups are represented in language, we must reckon with metaphor. According to Lakoff and Johnson (1980), metaphors involve the mapping of a source domain (e.g., a pig) to a target domain (e.g., members of a particular group). By virtue of this, the attributes associated with the source domain (e.g., dirty, lazy) come to represent the target domain. Group metaphors, which liken members of a human group to a nonhuman entity, allow groups to symbolize themselves and others in rich and often colorful ways. People may refer to their ingroup as members of an esteemed totem and derogate outgroups with insulting ethnonyms. This chapter primarily addresses outgroup metaphors, through the lens of recent scholarship on dehumanization (e.g., Haslam & Loughnan, 2014). In doing so, we recognize that ingroup metaphor is an important and underresearched topic and that outgroup metaphors are not invariably dehumanizing. Nevertheless, the metaphors that are often used to characterize “others” frequently liken them to infrahuman entities and imply that the people so designated are less than fully human. This chapter reviews the contents of dehumanizing metaphors, the common targets of such metaphors, and how different contents tend to attach to group targets. The consequences of dehumanizing metaphors for intergroup relations are then explored. Interested readers are also referred to an excellent overview by Maass, Suitner, and Arcuri (2014).

Content of Metaphors

Before turning to a review of the targets of intergroup metaphors, it is important first to describe their typical contents. In studying intergroup metaphors from the standpoint of dehumanization research, we are largely guided by Haslam’s (2006) model of dehumanization. By this account, people can be dehumanized in two ways, corresponding to two senses of “humanness,” the attributes that capture what it is to be human. According to one sense, which Haslam dubbed “human uniqueness,” humanness consists of qualities like rationality, self-control, language, and refinement, which distinguish humans from nonhuman animals. In contrast, “human nature” consists of qualities like emotionality, warmth, imagination, and relatedness, which distinguish humans from inanimate objects. To dehumanize an individual or group, then, is to deny them these human attributes. Denying someone their uniquely human attributes, which Haslam referred to as “animalistic” dehumanization, amounts to viewing them as uncivilized brutes, whereas denying someone their human nature attributes, or “mechanistic” dehumanization, amounts to viewing them as unfeeling objects or automatons.

According to theory, at least, dehumanizing metaphors would therefore be expected to have two main themes, the bestial and the inert. However, this classification is not exhaustive, because some intergroup metaphors do not fit readily into either figurative category. For instance, some metaphors liken members of particular groups to children and others employ supernatural entities, such as demons. Even among the two theoretically derived categories, animal metaphors greatly predominate and they are the focus of the review in this chapter. Before proceeding, it is important to make two key observations about these metaphors.

First, animal metaphors are enormously diverse both in the range of creatures referred to and in the degree to which their meanings and usages are derogatory and offensive. In a pair of studies, for example, Haslam, Loughnan, and Sun (2011) explored the meanings conveyed by forty common animal metaphors and found that, although on average they tended to imply a view of the metaphor target as depraved, disagreeable, and stupid, particular metaphors could carry widely different meanings. Animal metaphors could imply that people labeled as such had personalities that were agreeable (puppy) or disagreeable (snake), neurotic (chicken) or calm (owl), extroverted (fox) or timid (mouse), and curious (monkey) or close-minded (sheep). In addition, using an animal metaphor to refer to someone was judged to differ enormously in offensiveness, with the most offensive metaphors being of two quite distinct types: those metaphors that likened the person to a reviled animal (leech, rat, pig) and those that implied a dehumanizing contrast with humans (ape, dog). Thus, animal metaphors vary widely in their meanings and evaluative force.

Second, intergroup metaphors in general and animal metaphors in particular can be explicit or implicit, and both forms have been investigated in recent dehumanization research. Explicit metaphors are those that are overtly expressed and communicated in language. Perhaps surprisingly, these metaphors have received relatively little research attention from psychologists with interests in intergroup relations. Implicit metaphors, in contrast, are unexpressed and perhaps not even consciously avowed. They involve mental representations that influence social cognition beneath awareness or automatically. For example, the “infrahumanization” effect (Leyens et al., 2003) refers to the tendency for people to reserve uniquely human emotions—those not shared with other animals—to their ingroup, a phenomenon that implies a view of the outgroup as relatively animalistic, a view of which infrahumanizers appear to be unaware. While such subtle forms of dehumanization are undoubtedly less overt than metaphors in which a target group is explicitly described as a nonhuman entity, they still represent a view of the target group as metaphorically nonhuman. Consistent with Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) definition, when an individual is likened to an animal, for instance (either explicitly or implicitly), the attributes of that animal come to represent the target group. Evidence of these implicit metaphors has often been documented by studies employing implicit association and priming methodologies. Having established these caveats about intergroup metaphors—that they are diverse in content, valence, and explicitness—we now review research on the main targets of the metaphors.

Targets of Metaphors

Given that the function of intergroup metaphors is often to dehumanize, it is perhaps no surprise that metaphors are most commonly applied to outgroups. Yet, which particular outgroups are the most likely to be targets of dehumanizing metaphors? It is possible that such metaphors are applied in a relatively generalized way. The infrahumanization effect, as discussed above, suggests that individuals attribute lower humanness to outgroups in general (Leyens et al., 2003). It occurs in the absence of intergroup conflict (Demoulin et al., 2005), is not reducible to a lack of familiarity with the outgroup (Cortes, Demoulin, Rodriguez, Rodriguez, & Leyens, 2005), and occurs independently of the outgroup’s status (Leyens, Demoulin, Vaes, Gaunt, & Paladino, 2007; Rodríguez–Perez, Delgado-Rodriguez, Betancor-Rodriguez, Leyens, & Vaes, 2011). By implication, all outgroups have the potential to be infrahumanized by ingroup members.

That being said, not all outgroups are infrahumanized or dehumanized equally. For instance, research suggests that infrahumanization decreases when the outgroup is perceived as similar to the ingroup, or under conditions of intergroup friendship (Rodriguez-Perez et al., 2011). In sum, then, all outgroups have the potential to be dehumanized or infrahumanized, metaphorically likened to animals, objects, or other entities. It is perhaps likely, however, that certain groups are more targeted than others.

Metaphors are applied to a broad range of outgroups. Across groups varying by race, nationality, gender, and social class, among others, we explain the different metaphors used for these groups, and how the use of such metaphors serves as a form of dehumanization and as a way of justifying the groups’ maltreatment. In discussing the different outgroups, our review encompasses an array of source domains, demonstrating how people from the outgroups are likened to animals, objects, nature, diseases, and even food products. While our approach is broad, our review overwhelmingly focuses on nonhuman animal metaphors, given their wide use and overtly dehumanizing function. Finally, the summary discusses the likening of groups to the different source domains in a variety of ways, ranging from subtle expressions (e.g., via infrahumanization) to the more explicit use of metaphors (e.g., likening a person to a machine).

Race and Nationality

Of all possible outgroups, intergroup metaphors are commonly applied to racial outgroups. From the association of Africans with apes, to the likening of Indigenous people with primitives, the use of metaphors to describe racial outgroups has a long history, typically rooted in centuries of oppression and inequality.

In particular, the use of metaphors to describe Africans dates back to at least the colonial era, as a way of justifying their inferior status and maltreatment. In the late 18th century, African-Americans were considered not fully human, as reflected in Article 1, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which declared that African-American slaves counted as three-fifths of a human being. The denial of humanity to Black people is by no means limited to the confines of the United States, with Blacks having been likened to savages in Europe for centuries (Nederveen Pieterse, 1992), and more recently, having been dehumanized by Arab militia in South Sudan (Hagan & Rymond-Richmond, 2008).

The “Black-Ape” metaphor in particular has been commonly applied to Africans throughout history, reflecting the notion that Black people were primitive beings, and thus not fully evolved. Throughout the 19th century, this metaphor was commonly expressed in mainstream popular culture. Many cartoons, postcards, and other media of the time visually portrayed Black people as if they literally were apes or monkeys. These portrayals depicted Black people with apelike facial characteristics and often showed them consuming food with their hands, or engaging in other primitive behaviors (Stapels, 2009). While these overt depictions are less widespread today, they were still evidenced for much of the 20th century. For instance, Black people were depicted as apes in Italian Fascist media during World War II (Volpato, Durante, Gabbiadini, Andrighetto, & Mari, 2010), and even as recently as 2014, the Belgian newspaper De Morgen superimposed the faces of chimpanzees on images of Michelle and Barack Obama (Taibi, 2014).

Undoubtedly, however, such depictions are far less prevalent today, and when featured, bring about community outrage and backlash (Taibi, 2014). Indeed, these dehumanizing representations have largely fallen out of favor, and have been superseded by a broader culture of racial acceptance and inclusivity. Nonetheless, while such representations are overtly frowned upon, the Black-Ape association still holds in the minds of Americans. For example, Goff and colleagues recently demonstrated support for an implicit association between Black faces and apes (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, & Jackson, 2008). The researchers found a bidirectional association between the concepts, such that priming participants with Black faces aided in the identification of ape images, and vice versa—activating the concept of “ape” increased visual attention toward Black faces. The association was found to be extremely specific—it did not hold for other racial groups (e.g., Asians), and did not extend to other African animals (e.g., wild cats). Further, it did not vary depending on the participants’ own race or their racist attitudes (both implicitly and explicitly), and it was found even among individuals who claimed ignorance of the historical connection between Black people and apes. Thus, while the explicit representation of Blacks as apes has become less accepted over time, the implicit association is still deep-seated and widespread. Black people may not be referred to as apes, but they are still thought of as such.

Although Goff et al. (2008) found that the ape metaphor did not extend to other groups, such as Asians, it is not solely used in relation to Africans either. Throughout history, Indigenous people have also been likened to primates. As with Africans, Indigenous people have endured a long history of marginalization and oppression, with ape metaphors often used to denote their subhuman status, and by virtue of this, to legitimize their colonization. In 19th century Australia, for instance, Aboriginals were frequently described as possessing apelike characteristics (Peters-Little, 2003). More recent examples still abound. In 2013, Australian Indigenous footballer Adam Goodes was publicly labeled an ape by a young audience member (Crawford, 2013). Just days later, when discussing the incident on air, a prominent Australian media personality accidentally likened Goodes to King Kong (Paxinos, 2013). Although the gaffe was unintentional, it highlights the extent to which the association between Indigenous people and apes is still deeply ingrained in the minds of White Australians.

While Indigenous people have often been likened to apes, they also have been historically associated with primitiveness more generally. The notion of primitiveness implies a process of phylogenetic development, whereby some people are less evolved than others. Indeed, in his foundational book The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin wrote of Indigenous Australians as being at a lower stage of human evolution, positioning them somewhere on a continuum between Caucasians and nonhuman primates (Darwin, 1871). The concept of primitiveness was also explored by Gustav Jahoda in his book Images of Savages, in which he argued that the notion of some human groups’ being further along the hierarchical “chain of being” has persisted in forms of modern racism (see also Brandt & Reyna, 2011).

In recent years, researchers have begun to explore the associations between notions of primitiveness and Indigenous people. Employing an implicit association test (IAT), Saminaden, Loughnan, and Haslam (2010) examined whether people from traditional societies were more automatically associated with concepts related to primitiveness—including animality and childlikeness—and were less associated with humanness, relative to people from modern societies. The researchers found that participants associated traditional peoples with animals, children, and non-uniquely-human traits, consistent with the view that Indigenous people are considered underdeveloped or primitive. Interestingly, the researchers used images of people from both traditional and modern societies that were ethnically diverse, suggesting that judgments of phylogenetic and ontogenetic backwardness do not simply boil down to “race” per se. Further, the researchers demonstrated that the implicit association between primitiveness and traditional people was not simply a side effect of dislike, given that participants did not hold more negative implicit attitudes toward traditional people than they held toward those from modern societies.

Beyond race, metaphors have been employed throughout history to refer to national outgroups. Such metaphors are often explicit, such as the tendency of British people to refer to the French as “frogs,” and the tendency of the French to refer to British people as “rosbif” (i.e., roast beef; López-Rodríguez, 2014). However, such associations can occur on a more implicit level as well. For instance, using an IAT, Viki et al. (2006) found that British people associated outgroup German names (e.g., Klaus) with words related to animals (e.g., primal), more quickly than they associated ingroup British names (e.g., William) with animal words. Even more geographically specific, similar effects have been found in studies comparing within-nation borders. Boccato, Capozza, Falvo, and Durante (2008) found that participants from the north of Italy associated names typical of Southerners with animality more quickly than they associated names typical of their northern ingroup with animals.

In sum, metaphors have been used throughout history to categorize and dehumanize both racial and national outgroups. While the overwhelming majority of such metaphors compare racial and national outgroups to animals, some metaphors also describe them in other domains, including children and food.

Conflict: Terrorism

Dehumanizing metaphors can escalate beyond merely characterizing different ethnic and racial groups. Indeed, dehumanization research began by examining the way opposing forces characterized their enemies in war and conflict situations. Most recently, researchers have taken an interest in metaphor use surrounding the so-called War on Terror. In particular, animalistic dehumanization of terrorists is seen in the rhetoric of politicians, in media representations, and in cartoon images. In 2001, President George W. Bush said of the terrorists responsible for 9/11, “It’s barbaric behavior . . . we’re going to smoke them out” (Knowlton, 2001). The use of terms like “smoke them out” evokes the image of hunter and prey, human and animal. Prime Minister Tony Blair used a similarly animalistic term when he said “We have . . . put Saddam firmly back in his cage” (Karmi, 2002). Steuter and Wills (2008, 2010) discussed in detail the many hunting metaphors that are routinely used in media outlets when describing terrorist conflict. Pursuit of terrorist enemies is portrayed as a hunt, and metaphors like snaring, caging, trapping, netting, smoking out, bagging, flushing out, and picking up the scent of enemies are common in newspaper text. Beyond describing the relationship between hunters and the hunted, the media often use animalistic terms to describe terrorists themselves, including slithering and scurrying (Steuter & Wills, 2010). Terrorists’ strongholds are described in the terms of animal habitats, such as nests, lairs, and caves, and terrorists are often referred to as hiding out in underground spaces.

Animalistic metaphors do not stop at merely describing the pursuit or surrounds of terrorist enemies, they often reduce terrorist fighters to the status of animals themselves. Spencer (2012) analyzed newspaper articles for use of metaphors, finding that animal metaphors were frequently deployed for terrorist fighters. Terms used often centered on the subhuman (less than human) or inhuman (beyond human) nature of fighters, who were described as possessed, monstrous, or savage creatures, such as beasts or hydras. References to specific animals can also be found, with terrorists compared to vermin (e.g., rats, rodents, weasels, snakes, serpents, vipers, spiders, cockroaches, and hornets; Steuter & Wills, 2009).

In addition to animalizing terrorists, a smaller number of popular media outlets use disease metaphors. Disease metaphors do not neatly fit the paradigm of animalistic or mechanistic dehumanization; while diseases are natural and organic and therefore not mechanical, they do not fit neatly into the animalistic framework, either. Disease metaphors used in the War on Terror include a plague, sickness, or infestation spread by poisonous or deranged clerics (Spencer, 2012). Similarly, terms like virus or cancer have been used to justify the extermination or annihilation of terrorist fighters (Steuter & Wills, 2009). One might argue that disease metaphors are an even more severe form of dehumanization. Comparing a person to an animal still affords them some moral rights; animals are seen to experience harm and pain. Diseases, on the other hand, are not worthy of any moral concern. They are simply to be cleansed and removed from the system.

Finally, the use of animalistic (and to a lesser extent, disease) metaphors when discussing the War on Terror is an interesting shift from earlier discourses around Western-led armed conflict. During the Gulf War there was a much more mechanistic focus on soldiers. The futuristic technology employed by the military was used to portray soldiers as “powerful, dispassionate, technologically augmented figures” (Wills & Steuter, 2009, pp. 198), far away from the current use of hunter–prey metaphors when describing soldiers.

In summary, similar to the dehumanizing metaphors applied to race and nationality, the characterization of terrorist enemies is predominantly focused on animal metaphors. However, an extreme form of animalization is also introduced—disease metaphors. Finally, the characterization of ingroup soldiers has also shifted over time, from a mechanistic metaphor to a focus on the soldier as a hunter (thus reinforcing the conceptualization of the enemy as an animal).


Metaphors are commonly present in popular gender discourse; they are often employed to emphasize how the sexes differ from one another. The common expression, “the battle of the sexes,” and a metaphor in which men are described as coming from Mars and women from Venus, are two of many examples of metaphors used to denote how men and women fundamentally differ from one another. Yet gender metaphors serve more of a function than simply demonstrating gender differences. Just as metaphors are used to dehumanize racial and ethnic minorities, they are also used to dehumanize women, likening them to animals, objects, and nature, among other domains.

In recent years, researchers have started to explore the extent to which individuals implicitly dehumanize women. Vaes, Paladino, and Puvia (2011), for instance, used an IAT to assess the “woman-animal” association in particular. When participants were asked to pair images of men and women (either scantily clad or fully dressed) with words related to animals (e.g., snout, paw), they more readily paired animals with the scantily clad women than with any of the other three image categories (i.e., scantily clad men, and fully clothed men and women). The researchers took these findings as offering preliminary evidence that, when depicted in revealing attire, women are implicitly viewed as more animal-like than men. Interestingly, both male and female participants demonstrated this effect, suggesting that such associations can extend to members of one’s own group, and that dehumanization is not purely an outgroup phenomenon.

Beyond the subtle associations people make in likening women to animals in a general sense, a range of animal metaphors are commonly used to describe women. Many of the metaphors are outright derogatory, designed to demean and degrade women (e.g., cow, bitch; Dunayer, 1995; Roach, 2003). Others, however, tend to be more patronizing and benevolent (e.g., pet, kitten), implying that women need to be taken care of (Marley, 2007). For instance, using the term kitten for a woman often suggests domesticity and an absence of aggression, in contrast to her wild-cat counterpart (Marley, 2007), who is perceived as sexually aggressive and dangerous. The wild-cat women are often called cougars or vixens, labels implying that they are hunting for prey (Tipler & Ruscher, 2014). In line with this, recent research demonstrates that prostitutes are animalized, with the insults directed toward prostitutes being more likely to feature animalistic words (Rubini et al., 2016). The likening of women to wild and aggressive animals is by no means limited to sexual contexts. In fact, such animal metaphors are often employed in describing the ways that women themselves relate to, and compete with, one another. For instance, people often describe arguments between women as cat fights, with women getting their claws out with one another. Finally, farm animals are often used to describe women, with the descriptions employed as a way of associating women with their function of reproducing and raising offspring (López-Rodríguez, 2009). These metaphors (e.g., cow, pig) are typically used as a form of degradation and to express contempt, their purpose being to connote negative traits, such as ugliness, laziness, fatness, and dirtiness (Turpin, 2014).

Not only are women linguistically associated with animals, they are also often visually depicted as such throughout the media. As Plous and Neptune (1997) found in a content analysis of women’s magazines, women, and particularly women of color, are often associated with animals. For instance, Plous and Neptune found some ads presented women in animal-print clothing, depicted them as caged and shackled, and positioned them to look like an actual animal. These and similar ads communicate the view that women are unpredictable and dangerous and signify the need to tame and control them.

Other theorists have posited a connection between women and nature. For instance, Ortner (1974) proposed that women are more closely associated with nature due to the physicality of the female body, which is tied to the process of reproduction through menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. This notion is reflected in metaphors like Mother Nature or Mother Earth, which associate nature with the motherly qualities of nurturance and protection (Roach, 2003). The women–nature association has also been supported empirically. Research by Reynolds and Haslam (2011) demonstrated not only that people cognitively associate nature with women more so than with men, but also that visual media associate nature with women more often than with men. As philosophers and feminists have argued, the association between women and nature is a key cause of women’s subordination in society (de Beauvoir, 1972; Ortner, 1974).

Finally, object metaphors are also applied to describe women. At an explicit level, expressions like sex symbol, piece of ass, and eye candy are employed to literally associate the female body with an object. What is implied here is that a woman’s value lies in the sum of her body parts—she is merely an object whose function is for the pleasure and consumption of others (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). The media is rife with examples in which women’s bodies are objectified in order to sell products. Advertisements commonly depict women as passive sexual objects, often placing emphasis on isolated body parts (e.g., chest, legs), and completely cropping out the face from view. In presenting women in such a way, these advertisements downplay or minimize women’s agency (Berger, 1972; Coltrane & Adams, 1997), positioning them as mere decoration. Some advertisements go so far as to literally depict women as objects—using their bodies to represent tables, beer bottles, or even video games. The constant theme in all these images is that a woman’s role in society is that of an object to be used and enjoyed by others (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997).

Furthermore, although an array of animal, nature, and object metaphors are used to refer to women and their bodies, to a lesser extent, metaphors are also used to refer to men. In addition, the forms of metaphors used to describe men differ substantially from those used to refer to women. Unlike metaphors about women, which are typically used to subjugate and dehumanize, metaphors about men emphasize their positive qualities, such as strength, size, and power (e.g., lion, bull; López-Rodríguez, 2009). While there are most certainly exceptions, and some metaphors can be used to describe men in a negative light (e.g., pig), metaphors about men are not rooted in oppression and thus tend to be less dehumanizing.

While both race and gender are categories that exist in all societies, there are myriad other intergroup contexts that can also be fertile grounds for the use of metaphors. We turn now to examples of social outgroups that are contrasted to the “general population”: the mentally ill, the working class and poor, and people with criminal convictions. We also investigate metaphors of opposing intergroups, demonstrated through metaphors across the political spectrum and between workers and employees.

Medicalization and Mental Illness

The medical field is one of the few contexts in which the mechanistic, rather than animalistic dehumanization, is the predominant form of metaphor. Medical staff and patients appear to be pitted against each other: the medical professional is powerful, in control, and knowledgeable, while the patient is submissive and defers to the expert. This power imbalance poses problems when it comes to humanizing patients, as power is often a precursor to dehumanization (Lammers & Stapel, 2011). Dehumanizing metaphors can arise in many medical contexts, such as reduction of a patient to a disease, or describing the patient as an object.

One notable feature of doctor–patient relationships is that patients are commonly reduced to their bodies. First, medical staff may use the patient’s condition as the patient’s primary identifier (O’Brien, 1999). For example, instead of referring to a patient by name, a medical practitioner may describe the patient as the “bowel resection in Ward 2” (Schulman-Green, 2003, p. 256). Second, patients may be referred to by body parts, organs, tissue, or other physical features (Haque & Waytz, 2012). Of course, such a practice is purposeful when diagnosing and treating patients. Medical staff may also describe patients using object metaphors. The use of the term case for a patient suggests an assembly-line structure within the hospital and removes some of the personalizing aspects of using the term patient (Schulman-Green, 2003). Similarly, describing a patient as boxed (i.e., ready to be placed in a casket) can seem morbid or callous, but it can also serve to help the medical practitioner cope with the patient’s imminent death.

Interestingly, mechanistic metaphors appear to be bidirectional for doctors and patients. Rees, Knight, and Wilkinson (2007) found that patients described their doctors using mechanistic metaphors like robots or mechanics of the body. This is one of the few examples of intergroup dehumanization where a low-status group dehumanizes a higher-status one (Haslam & Loughnan, 2014).

The use of metaphors extends into mental health, too. People with cognitive impairments have historically been marginalized by animalizing metaphors. People with intellectual disabilities have been compared to brutes and animals, with an emphasis on the reduction of the cognitively impaired to the level of apes (O’Brien, 2003). In even more extreme usage, people with cognitive disabilities were described using disease metaphors, such as cancers, tumors, barnacles, ulcers, sores, lice, and parasites. O’Brien (1999) conceptualizes these disease metaphors as extreme animalization, a reduction of the mentally handicapped to the lowest taxa of the animal kingdom.

Finally, some experimental research has demonstrated the ascription of animal attributes to people with mental illness. Martinez, Piff, Mendoza-Denton, and Hinshaw (2011) demonstrated that patients described as having chronic mental illness (e.g., bipolar disorder) were more closely associated with animal-related words than human-related words. This denial of humanity to the mentally ill acted as a mediator between the mental illness label and the participant’s perceptions of how dangerous the target was, implying that fear of the mentally ill may be a result of animalization.

Social Class

There is a small but growing body of evidence that suggests the poor and dispossessed are more commonly viewed in dehumanizing ways. In particular, animality is frequently used to denigrate the lower classes, by suggesting they are savage, apelike, and comparatively less evolved than the higher classes (Jahoda, 1999). These stereotypes seem to be culturally consistent, at least in Western nations. In the United States, the working class are seen as being cruder, more hostile, and dirtier than the middle class (Spencer & Castano, 2007). Wray (2006) argued that, as characterized by the term White trash, the poor and working class of America have been portrayed as biologically inferior. Similarly, in The United Kingdom the termchavs1 is used to denote lower-class youths, who are typically classified as crude, unintelligent, excessively sexual, dirty, and lazy (Jones, 2011; Pini & Previte, 2013). Finally, the term bogan refers to the lower and working class of Australia. Like chavs and White trash, bogans are viewed as lacking in sophistication and taste. Although it is not explicitly a metaphor, the term has acquired dehumanizing meaning analogous to the equivalent terms in American and English cultures. Pini & Previte (2013) discussed descriptions of bogans, particularly women, as lacking human qualities. Kennedy and Kennedy (2014) also discussed the dehumanizing, anthropological style of discourse around the bogan: both traditional and social media make references to bogans “in their natural habitat,” roaming in “herds” with their “younglings.” Such characterizations are more explicit than those found in the United States and United Kingdom; using the narrative style of a nature documentary to describe bogans draws a direct parallel between the lower class and animals.

In experimental work, a set of studies has considered how these three Western stereotypes of the poor relate to animal characteristics. Loughnan, Haslam, Sutton, and Spencer (2014) compared ratings of animality for white trash, chavs, and bogans in their respective countries of origin. The findings were consistent across all three nations: the stereotype used for lower-class people denies the human qualities that separate humans from animals, in particular, apes. In other words, the poor are seen as more apelike and evolutionarily challenged than the middle class.

Other Domains

A number of additional intergroup contexts have been investigated in the literature, including groups that differ in political orientation, sexual orientation, workplace status, and criminality.

The political spectrum is deeply divided between the “bleeding hearts” of the left-leaning progressive parties and the “hard-hearted” right-wing conservatives (Crawford, Modri, & Motyl, 2013). While stereotypes of the two major ideologies abound, very little work has examined the animalistic and mechanistic undertones of differing ideologies. Crawford et al. (2013) examined the content of these stereotypes by asking participants to identify which traits characterized liberals and conservatives. The traits were drawn from a list of uniquely human (UH) and human nature (HN) traits. Results showed that, independent of the ideology of the rater, liberals were generally seen as higher on both positive and negative HN traits than UH traits (i.e., they were rated as more animalistic). Conversely, conservatives were generally seen to have more UH traits than HN traits (i.e., they were seen as more machinelike). However, the case with conservatives was more complex; the valence of the traits assigned to them depended on the political orientation of the person doing the ratings. Political orientation has also been studied in an Italian context. Pacilli, Roccato, Pagliaro, and Russo (2016) found evidence that the outgroup (people of the opposite political persuasion) were dehumanized by being likened to animals. Thus, these two studies provide the first evidence that political groups may deny human qualities to the opposing party, reducing them to the status of animals or objects.

Although sexual orientation has been understudied in the arena of dehumanizing metaphors, one study has examined perceptions of asexual people, in comparison to bisexual, homosexual, and heterosexual people. MacInnes and Hodson (2012) demonstrated that asexual people were denied more human traits than any other sexual orientation, and that they were denied both UH and HN traits—though HN traits were denied more consistently. In other words, asexual people were the most likely sexual orientation to be animalistically and especially mechanistically dehumanized. The authors understood this as a sign of how critical sexuality is to our concept of humanity. More research in this area would be useful in establishing the metaphor content of other sexual orientations.

Sociology has long discussed the metaphor of the workplace as a “machine” (Bell & Khoury, 2016). The natural byproduct of such a view is that workers are often reduced to the status of instruments or tools (Bell & Khoury, 2011), and their performance is considered a commodity and is sold (Marx, 1844/1961). Indeed, the term human capital is used as a metaphoric extension of financial capital, to describe the earnings capacity of an individual through his or her skills and abilities (Bankston & Zhou, 2002). Such a term reduces the worth of a human to the value of their work, commodifying humanness as an object to be traded or bought.

The mechanistic dehumanization of workers can have important organizational outcomes, such as affecting turnover intentions (Bell & Khoury, 2016). In a study of transcripts from employee exit interviews, Väyrynen and Laari-Salmela (2015) found that some workers reported animalistic dehumanization in the form of being treated with condescension or as though they lacked maturity, while other workers described being mechanistically dehumanized when they were treated as resources for projects rather than as people with opinions. As such, workplace metaphors—especially mechanistic ones—may become a growing body of research in the future.

Finally, animal metaphors feature heavily in representations of criminals. In the media, criminals are commonly referred to as “brutes,” “beasts,” and “savages,” particularly when their crimes are violent. For instance, one 2012 article appearing in the U.K. newspaper The Sun, described a violent offender as performing a “mindless and savage attack” for which he would be “caged for life” (May, 2012). Research has also shown that individuals explicitly endorse the view that violent criminals are animals, with words like “wild,” “feral,” and “unrefined” commonly used to describe them (Hetey & Eberhardt, 2013). Such a finding accords with recent research demonstrating that villains are considered outside the boundary of moral concern, deserving of even lesser moral standing than plants, low-sentience animals, and the environment (Crimston, Bain, Hornsey, & Bastian, 2016).

Consequences of Intergroup Metaphors

From vixen to vermin, prey to parasite, and rosbif to robots, an array of metaphors are commonly used to characterize outgroup members. Metaphors are applied to a variety of different outgroups and are employed to reflect differences of gender, race, mental health, and social class, among others. Furthermore, metaphors are more than simply figures of speech. Given that their predominant purpose is to dehumanize, the use of metaphors goes beyond description to actually shape thought and behavior toward outgroups (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980). By associating group members with certain attributes of animals, objects, or even diseases, metaphors have implications for the perception and treatment of group members. Yet, while there is a plethora of research on intergroup metaphors, only a small amount of work has focused on the harmful effects of using these terms. Undoubtedly, the particular type of metaphor applied carries different implications for the group in question. For instance, as Tipler and Ruscher (2014) have argued, metaphors that liken groups to parasites imply a need or desire to exterminate members of the target group. In contrast, the use of wild-cat metaphors to describe a group suggests that group members require taming and domestication, and that strategies should focus not on extermination, but on domination. The small body of research that has examined the real-world consequences of employing intergroup metaphors has documented the impact they have on empathic concern, on acceptance of intergroup violence, on the actual enactment of violence, and on punishment decisions, among others.

One well-established outcome of using intergroup metaphors is a reduction in compassion for, and support of, the targeted outgroup. This has been demonstrated particularly with metaphors in which the outgroup is viewed as primitive. For instance, recent research by Kteily, Bruneau, Waytz, and Cotterill (2015) found that among non-Arab Americans, viewing Arabs as evolutionarily backward predicted a decrease in sympathy for Muslims in the wake of the 2013 Boston bombings. In a separate study employing a different intergroup context, the researchers demonstrated that among Hungarians, dehumanizing perceptions of Romani people was associated with less compassionate responses to a real news story about the harassment of Roma school children (Kteily et al., 2015). Neither of these findings was accounted for by outgroup dislike—it was simply the view that the groups were backward that produced lower levels of care and concern.

Further to a reduction in empathy and compassion, the use of intergroup metaphors has also been associated with increased preferences for segregation. Kteily et al. (2015) showed, for instance, that blatant dehumanization of the Roma and Arabs predicted, respectively, lower support for public spending on integrating the Roma into society and reduced support for Arab immigration into the United States. In research on perceptions of sex offenders, Viki, Fullerton, Raggett, Tait, and Wiltshire (2012) found that the more participants chose animal words to describe sex offenders, the greater was their preference for the offenders’ social exclusion. Stated simply, the more one group considers another group phylogenetically inferior, the less the former wants to have to do with the latter.

In a related vein, the use of intergroup metaphors also affects support for discrimination and violence. In terms of discrimination, Kteily et al. (2015) demonstrated that the view of Romani people as evolutionarily backward increased support for discriminatory policies toward them, such as decreasing their access to public housing. A number of studies have also established a link between metaphor use and the condoning or justification of actual violence. In one of their studies exploring the Black-Ape association, Goff and colleagues (2008) primed participants with apes and then showed them a short video depicting a scenario in which a group of police officers surrounded a suspect and violently subdued him. The suspect was not visible to participants; however, when participants were led to believe that the suspect was Black, those who had been primed with ape-related words supported the violence to a greater extent than when they were told the suspect was White. Similarly, Kteily et al. (2015) found that the dehumanization of Arabs predicted support for vengeance in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston bombings, as well as support for drone strikes and counterterrorism efforts. Finally, in situations when violence has been directed toward an outgroup, the use of metaphors can help legitimize the violence. As Spencer (2012) has argued, in the case of terrorism, the use of metaphors of barbarianism and savagery to describe the terrorist outgroup can result in eliminating the need to justify violence toward them. In such scenarios, killing outgroup members is construed as the noble thing to do—they are monsters and beasts, and by virtue of this, violent countermeasures are deemed entirely appropriate (Salter, 2002).

Beyond promoting support for violence and post hoc justification of violent acts, the use of intergroup metaphors has been associated with enacted, or intended, violence toward outgroups. For instance, Rudman and Mescher (2012) assessed men’s implicit associations between women, objects, and animals via an IAT. They found that the stronger the association between words relating to women (e.g., she, her) and object words (e.g., device, thing), the more likely men were to say that they would sexually assault a woman if they knew they could get away with it. In addition, men’s tendency to associate women with animals was related to endorsing a greater willingness to engage in sexual harassment and a greater likelihood of perpetrating sexual assault on women. Employing a different intergroup context, Viki, Osgood, and Phillips (2013) also demonstrated a link between dehumanization and willingness to engage in violence. The researchers found that the more Christians animalistically dehumanized Muslims (i.e., the more they selected fewer words relating to humans than animals to characterize Muslims), the more willing they indicated they would be to torture Muslims.

Research has also demonstrated the impact that metaphors play in affecting punishment decisions, such as sentencing. Using a hypothetical scenario, Vasquez, Loughnan, Gootjes-Dreesbach, and Weger (2014) found evidence to suggest that merely describing actions in an animalistic way impacts the length of sentencing. Across two studies, the authors varied the description of a crime either by describing the offender in an animalistic manner (e.g., “he roared at the victim,” “the attack was savage”) or by using non-animalistic terms to describe him (e.g. “he confronted the victim,” “the attack was sustained”). Participants who read the animalistic version recommended longer sentences for the offender; the difference was an additional two years of jail in the first study, and an additional one year in the second. The authors argued that this increase in sentencing likely arose from a fear of future violence by the perpetrator, possibly due to the animalistic criminal being seen as uncontrollable or instinctual.

Going further, some research has explored how the use of animalistic metaphors in the real world is related to actual sentencing decisions. Goff et al. (2008) analyzed news media communications about murders committed in Philadelphia between 1979 and 1999. They found that jungle imagery consistent with the ape metaphor was often featured in news stories when the assailant was African American. Meaningfully, the subtle use of such imagery in news articles was associated with jury decisions to execute Black defendants.

Finally, while thus far the discussion has covered the negative implications of intergroup metaphors, including reduced compassion and increased violence toward the outgroup, it is worth mentioning some of the positive outcomes associated with metaphor usage. Intergroup metaphors are not always negative, and depending on the context and the function, they may actually bring about beneficial outcomes. In a medical context, for instance, the dehumanization of patients may actually be functional, helping medical workers to cope with the stressful demands of patient care (Haque & Waytz, 2012). As Vaes and Muratore (2013) found, the extent to which health care professionals infrahumanized their patients predicted symptoms of burnout, including increased disillusionment with work, greater exhaustion, decreased work engagement, and reduced feelings of professional efficacy. Stated simply, in contexts where human suffering is involved, it may be effective to take the human aspect out of the suffering. Not only is such a strategy potentially beneficial to the medical worker’s self, but also it can improve outcomes for patients, who receive better care as a result.


As demonstrated in this section, the use of metaphors to characterize other groups goes beyond mere description. Indeed, intergroup metaphors carry meaningful implications, affecting the way we perceive and treat other groups even when we are unaware of them doing so (Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011). Overall, the implications of metaphor usage are negative, facilitating discrimination, violence, and reduced empathy toward outgroups. Ultimately, as research suggests, finding ways to increase the attribution of humanity to outgroups may well serve to lessen the negative consequences that arise from metaphor usage (Martinez, 2014).


The study of intergroup metaphor is remarkably rich. Metaphors, both explicit and implicit, play a key role in how members of groups represent one another. Seen through the lens of dehumanization theory and research, intergroup metaphors can be shown to have an assortment of destructive implications that are not reducible to simple evaluative attitudes.

Although the study of intergroup metaphors has accelerated under the banner of dehumanization research, much remains to be discovered and understood. As previously mentioned, limited work to date has uncovered the implications of intergroup metaphor usage, with research on this topic emerging only recently. Future research should also aim to clarify the impact of metaphors across a range of intergroup contexts, and to shed more light on how metaphor usage can produce differing outcomes depending on the precise metaphor used (Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011). For example, the study of dehumanizing metaphors has predominantly focused on race or ethnic groups (Goff et al., 2008; Saminaden et al., 2010; Viki et al., 2006). Much less work has focused on groups defined by gender, social class, and sexuality, and metaphor research focusing on ideological groups (religiosity, political orientation) or other social categories (the medically or mentally ill, criminals) is nearly nonexistent.

Similarly, the strong focus on animal metaphors is probably related to the dominance of race as the main context for intergroup research. Dehumanization theories (e.g., Haslam, 2006) propose both animal and object metaphors, but the use of mechanistic metaphors has been almost ignored to date. Further investigation into alternative intergroup contexts beyond race may reveal contexts where animality is not the predominant source of metaphors, or may suggest new forms of metaphor that have not been discussed in this chapter. For example, disease metaphors (e.g., plague, infestation, cancer), and to a lesser extent superhuman metaphors (e.g., devils, demons, monsters), are not accounted for in current psychological theories. Similarly, plant or food-based metaphors—such as referring to comatose people as “vegetables” or to the mentally ill as “bananas” (Sommer, 1988)—have been almost completely neglected. However, despite these areas of relative ignorance, the study of intergroup metaphor has reached maturity, and significant further growth can be expected in the next decade.


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                                                                                                                                                                          (1.) While the origin of the term chav is disputed, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the origin of the word as the Romani word chavi, meaning “child.”