What does it mean to be human?

Home » What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human?

Share on facebook
Share on twitter

In our post about dehumanizationwe discussed why and how we tend to strip others of their ‘humanness’. This is one of the early steps in the 10 steps to genocide, therefore understanding why people dehumanize others is vital to preventing violence. To fully understand dehumanization, however, we need to fully understand what it means to be human. 

What does it mean to be human?

It’s a question that has been discussed by philosophers and psychologists alike. Psychological Essentialism is used by dehumanization theorists and refers to the conception that every organism contains an “essence” or underlying feature that makes them unique. So, what makes humans unique? We share 98% of our genetic makeup with chimpanzees. Our tendency and ability to split into social groups is also shared by animals. 

Jacques-Philippe Leyens, who developed the theory of infra humanization, defines human uniqueness in the terms of the emotions associated with being human or being an animal. The two different types of emotional categories include primary emotions and secondary emotions. 

Primary emotions are the first emotions we feel connected to an event or a stimulus. So, these would be emotions such as anger, sadness, or fear. These emotions do not involve any cognitive thinking and are merely our reactions to an event. For example, when we feel sad because we lost a loved one, or angry because someone said something mean to us, those are primary emotions, our first reactions to something that has happened. Because they are not emotions that we have to learn to develop throughout our lives, and that doesn’t require cognitive work, they are usually considered to be animalistic in nature. 

Secondary emotions, however, are considered to be uniquely human. Secondary emotions are our reactions to our primary emotions. For example, have you have felt guilty about becoming angry at someone, or mad at yourself for being sad about something? Those would be secondary emotions. We develop our ability to feel and understand secondary emotions in childhood. They are not direct reactions to a stimulus or event, but rather a reaction to your primary emotions. Because secondary emotions require cognitive work and we learn and develop them throughout our lives through social interactions and conditioning, they are usually considered to be unique to the human experience. 

However, critics of Leyen’s theory say that both of these emotional categories are not uniquely human, or an inherent part of the human essence. While secondary emotions may be a part of what it means to be human, it is not the full story. 

Nick Haslam, the leading theorist of dehumanization theory, defines two distinct notions of what it means to be human including uniquely human traits and human nature traits.

Uniquely human traits are psychological attributes that distinguish human beings from other species including civility, refinement, and higher cognition. Uniquely human traits imply that people are able to make rational decisions, weighing and considering the pros and cons of action, considering consequences, and responding to societal cues. In other words, humans do not just do things without thinking about them, and consider multiple aspects of our actions. 

Human nature traits are traits that distinguish both humans and other animals from inanimate objects and are considered to be an inherent aspect of human nature, such as; emotional responsiveness and agency. Basically, this is what makes us, and animals, different from robots, or computers. Humans have the capability to feel and express our emotions, and use those emotions to make our decisions. While our decisions based on emotions may not always be good, we do heavily rely on our emotions in our communication and actions. 

Our humanness depends heavily on our socialization. Humanness is something that is learned. We learn to develop our cognitive abilities, our emotional capabilities, and our refinement throughout our lives. All of these things are taught through our interactions with one another, the things we see, read or watch in the media. A unique aspect of our humanness is our ability to change, develop, and grow throughout our lives. 

Obviously, everyone wants to be considered human, and stripping our humanness away, by saying people act like animals, or even act like robots, is deeply upsetting to anyone. The dehumanization of groups is not only harmful to that group but harmful to all of society. Regardless of what it is, that makes us all uniquely human, or what makes people different from one another, people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and no one deserves to have their humanness stripped away from them. 


Haslam, N. ‘What is dehumanization?’ Humanness and Dehumanization. Eds. P. G. Bain, J. Vaes, and J.-Ph. Leyens. New York: Psychology Press, 2013b. 34–48

Haslam, N., et al. ‘More human than you: attributing humanness to self and others.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89.6 (2005):937–50.

Leyens, J.-Ph., et al. ‘Infrahumanization: the wall of group differences.’ Social Issues and Policy Review 1.1 (2007): 139–72. 

Leyens, J.-Ph., et al. ‘The emotional side of prejudice: the attribution of secondary emotions to ingroups and outgroups.’ Personality and Social Psychology Review 4.2 (2000): 186–97.