What is misanthropy

Right-wing extremism

Beate Küpper

To person

Beate Küpper is professor for social work for groups and conflict situations at the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences. She worked as a collaborator in the long-term study on misanthropy in Germany at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence (IKG) at Bielefeld University under Prof. Wilhelm Heitmeyer. Together with Andreas Zick and Andreas Hövermann, she wrote the study "The devaluation of others. A European description of the state of intolerance, prejudice and discrimination".

Andreas Zick

Andreas Zick is Professor of Socialization and Conflict Research and heads the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence (IKG) at Bielefeld University. Before that he worked for the long-term study on misanthropy in Germany under Prof. Wilhelm Heitmeyer. Together with Beate Küpper and Andreas Hövermann he wrote the study "The devaluation of others. A European description of the state of intolerance, prejudice and discrimination".

The homeless, the Jews, the gays - whenever people are divided into groups based on one common characteristic, and these are devalued and marginalized, we speak of group-related misanthropy. The researchers Beate Küpper and Andreas Zick explain how this works and the consequences of GMF - the abbreviation.

Group-related misanthropy is also directed against people with disabilities. (& copy picture-alliance)

"There are too many foreigners in Germany" - even in the 2014 survey year, around 37 percent of Germans still hold this view. [1] Such and similar statements that express rejection, devaluation and exclusion can be described with the collective term of group-related misanthropy. If people are marked as somehow different ’, foreign’ or abnormal ’because of their assigned membership of a social group, then‘ unequal ’can easily become unequal’. This means that group-related misanthropy is also a core element of right-wing extremist attitudes, which are expressed there, among other things, in xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism, but also in sexism and homophobia. In the following, group-related enmity is presented as well as some results from the long-term project of the same name and follow-up projects that have been investigating group-related enmity since 2002 at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at Bielefeld University.

Group-related misanthropy - the devaluation and marginalization of weak groups

As group-related misanthropy, we refer to derogatory and exclusionary attitudes towards people based on their assigned membership of a social group. [2] A misanthropic attitude in this sense can also manifest itself in exclusionary or even violent acts or have an influence on the design of discriminatory rules and processes in institutions and the development of discriminatory structures.

Not all forms of exclusion of individuals have to be an expression of group-related enmity, for example bullying due to poverty and not all forms of inequality - as bad as this is for those affected. But they are when they are underpinned and driven by an ideology of inequality and the devaluation and exclusion are not justified individually, but are directed against people based on their actual or supposed belonging to a group. Conversely, behind derogatory, marginalizing or violent phenomena, which at first glance are directed against individual individuals, group-related misanthropy can also be concealed. This can be the case, for example, in the case of domestic violence against women, in which sexist role models can play a role, or in the decision in the city council to vote against a structural support measure for a poor district with a predominantly migrant population, in which racism may also guide action is.

Disparaging attitudes towards groups or people based on their group membership are referred to as prejudice in social psychology. [3] They can manifest themselves in hatred, stereotypical perception, or discriminatory behavior. Prejudices are not simply hasty judgments. Rather, they are inadmissible over-generalizations that use the "pars pro toto" method to draw conclusions from individuals on all. In doing so, actual or even supposed characteristics and behaviors of a few people are transferred to those of all other people who are assigned to the same social groups on the basis of a common characteristic (in the sense of "all women are ..., all Muslims ..."). It is irrelevant whether a person actually belongs to the assigned group or identifies with it or not, because it depends on the perception and evaluation of those who devalue. An example of this is the so-called "xenophobia", in which it is particularly easy to understand how the ascription of "foreign" is constructed and this is always done with an emphasis on the difference to an equally constructed "own group". People are not in themselves 'strangers', but are made into 'strangers' in the perception and evaluation of characteristics by looking at differences and not at similarities. "Xenophobia" is directed against people who are perceived as 'foreign' and 'different' based on physical markers or their surname and are therefore often devalued and marginalized, regardless of where these people grew up and how long these people have been in your own small community or living in Germany, etc.

On the basis of which characteristics people are categorized into "we" and "they", stereotyped and devalued and the extent to which this then leads to discrimination - be it by individuals, institutions or structures - can vary depending on the time, place or situation. It is noticeable, however, that gender, age, religion, ethnic and cultural origin and, in many cases, sexual orientation and a disability are used as characteristics to justify inequalities. It happens that prejudices that seem to have been overcome or have been forgotten are reactivated and again lead to open discrimination. This is evident again and again, especially when there are renewed outbreaks of anti-Semitism. Sometimes devaluation and exclusion are expressed openly and directly, sometimes also subtly and indirectly. Currently, in Germany, but also in other Western European countries, a renewed, open break-up of hostility towards Roma and asylum seekers can be observed, which seemed to have faded into the background for a long time. Conversely, the characteristic of sexual orientation is becoming less important in order to identify inequality, at least when it comes to open devaluation and exclusion.

The syndrome of group-related enmity

Prejudices against a group - such as immigrants - do not usually arise alone, but the devaluation of one group goes hand in hand with the devaluation of other groups. Gordon Allport, the father of modern prejudice research, stated this: "One fact of which we are fairly certain is that people who reject one group of outsiders also tend to reject other groups of outsiders. When someone is against Jews , it is probably also against Catholics, blacks and any other group of outsiders. "[4] As different as the devaluation and exclusion of different target groups can be in their history, their distribution and their consequences, they also have something in common at the same time : It is always about maintaining or establishing social hierarchies. This assumption has now been confirmed empirically: Anyone who generally supports hierarchies between social groups is more likely not only to devalue a specific group, but generally to devalue a whole series of groups; and so, for example, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia often go hand in hand. [5]

Heitmeyer (2002) describes this interplay of prejudices as the syndrome of group-related enmity, which is held together by a common core that can be described as an ideology of inequality. As part of a syndrome of group-related misanthropy, the following elements have so far been recorded in the German and, in some cases, European context: xenophobia and the general support for established privileges for long-established residents compared to newcomers, ethnic racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, the devaluation of Muslims, Sinti and Roma and asylum seekers as well as homosexual, disabled, homeless and long-term unemployed people. Depending on the cultural and political context, further elements can be added or, if necessary, dropped out of the syndrome. However, ideologies of inequality seem to be directed more or less across time and culture, often against the same or similar target groups.

Function and consequences of group-related misanthropy

Rejecting and derogatory attitudes towards social groups or those who are viewed as members of a group provide the narratives and arguments to explain and justify social hierarchies, e.g. between long-time residents and immigrants, men and women or heterosexual and homosexual people. Ultimately, they serve groups with higher status to secure their own privileges, which they enjoy thanks to existing hierarchies, and groups with lower status to increase their position in relation to and differentiation from those who are below. Such social hierarchies are deeply anchored in almost all cultures. In many places, who is “up” and who is “down” is decided in particular by gender, age and ethnic and cultural affiliations. Whites, men and older people are almost everywhere in higher status than blacks, women and younger people, who have less financial means, less political influence and so on. Groups exposed to prejudice and discrimination are therefore also referred to as "weak" groups. They are "weak" in terms of their ability to participate socially, economically and politically in our society in the same way as other groups.

Prejudices provide supposed knowledge about social groups that supposedly explains why members of some groups are higher up the social ladder and others lower, e.g. are more or less successful in the school system. This becomes particularly clear in the case of biological prejudices, which cite the "natural predispositions" of blacks and whites, men and women in order to explain social hierarchies between these groups - and thus also to legitimize them. Stereotypes and prejudices are used precisely where there is a lack of real factual knowledge, for example because someone has little contact with Jews, Muslims or Roma. This stereotype-based knowledge also controls perception and interpretation in real situations - and also the selection of media reports: As "cognitive misers", people perceive above all that which fits their existing knowledge. The unsuitable is hidden as far as possible. That is why it is so difficult to counter existing stereotypes and long-held prejudices with education and positive counterexamples. [6]

Group-related misanthropy also offers control because behavior can be assessed and predicted with it. For example, the accusation of "insufficient willingness to integrate" puts immigrant people under constant pressure: They have to constantly demonstrate their willingness to integrate without being told when their integration has been sufficiently successful. The demarcation to the 'others' also offers a strengthening of the 'we-feeling', from which a greater cohesion and trust in one's own group feeds. The devaluation of the 'others' then serves the convenient upgrading of one's own groups and the associated one positive social identity of the individual: As a member of a comparatively positive social group, one can feel better the worse the others are portrayed.

How does GMF affect those affected?

As an impermissible over-generalization, prejudices cloud the judgment of those who have prejudices; they lead to unfair assessments and form a basis for discriminatory behavior from individual to individual or for the creation of discriminatory structures, which then in turn create reality and thus again influence the attitude and self-assessment of individuals. Prejudice and discrimination therefore directly result in high psychological stress for those affected. They are related to an impairment of the psychological well-being of those affected, which manifests itself, for example, in a lower self-esteem and depressive illnesses up to an increased risk of suicide. This effect has been demonstrated for non-heterosexual people, among others. Devaluation and marginalization also make people who experience them physically ill, which manifests itself in the form of stress disorders. A possible reaction of those affected by the devaluation can be the self-adjustment to the prejudices that already exist, so that these become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who are constantly accused of not wanting to adapt and who, regardless of their own efforts, are repeatedly referred to as unwilling to integrate because of their appearance or name and thus run into difficulties, at some point give up and actually turn away.

Something is lost to society as a whole, namely the perspectives, ideas and contributions of the 'others'. This can have very tangible economic consequences - if, for example, as can currently be observed, the foreign skilled workers recruited again move away. Studies on diversity in work teams also indicate that heterogeneous teams come up with more innovative solutions than homogeneously staffed teams, which is particularly important for more demanding tasks. [7]

Far-reaching consequences of group-related enmity can also be social protest, unrest and uprisings up to civil war, if those who are excluded no longer want to be excluded and demand more equality.

How group-related misanthropy is captured

Many studies record and analyze group-related enmity from different disciplinary perspectives. As a rule, however, they focus on individual or a few target groups. The long-term project "Group-related enmity" (2002-2011) at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence at Bielefeld University took a broad range of target groups into account for the first time and analyzed the characteristics, conditions and consequences of group-related enmity. The annual survey was based on telephone interviews with a representative sample of 2,000 people aged 16 and over. [8] The analyzes were continued in 2014 with the study "Fragile Center - Hostile States". [9] In 2008, a total of eight European countries - Germany, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Portugal, Poland and Hungary - were included in the study. [10]

The recording of group-related misanthropy in a population survey is inevitably limited to the survey of attitudes and possibly also behavioral intentions, while exclusionary behavior and structural discrimination cannot be recorded. As is customary in population surveys, respondents are asked to agree or disagree with a series of pre-checked statements that can reliably and validly capture a particular element. Because of the sheer number of questions, the coverage is necessarily limited to a few dimensions of an element of group-related enmity. [11] The assumption is also reasonable, and this is also shown by other studies, that the answers are subject to a certain social desirability - i.e. to answer in a way that presumably corresponds to the norm. Prejudice and racism are subject to a social norm of not being racist, which means that many people do not want to be racist or at least do not want to appear racist to the outside world. The respondents are therefore likely to have given more cautious answers. The percentages determined in the surveys are therefore likely to underestimate rather than overestimate the extent of group-related enmity in case of doubt.

Taking these limitations into account, the results can nonetheless provide indications of the spread of group-related enmity in the population, show developments over time, provide information about the severity in different population groups and empirically substantiate possible causes and conditional factors. This is not only important to get an overview of misanthropic attitudes in society, but also for prevention and intervention.

According to the findings of the representative study "Fragile Mitte" 2014, group-related enmity is widespread in Germany: Only around a fifth of Germans (21 percent) reject all twelve elements of group-related enmity recorded there, while 80 percent of those surveyed agree with at least one of the elements signal. According to the European comparative study 2008, Germany is in the middle of Europe for the extent of group-related enmity.

Causes and conditions of group-related enmity

A large number of theoretical approaches can be used to explain group-related enmity, which are discussed in relation to related phenomena or individual elements. It is discussed whether the cause of group-related misanthropy lies in the individual (e.g. personality or education), what influence group relationships such as family relationships, social identity or contact between groups have, as well as cultural, social and, above all, economic factors.

As part of the long-term study on group-related enmity, a number of the theoretical explanatory approaches discussed were tested for their empirical validity. Accordingly, there is not just one, but a whole bundle of important explanatory factors that help determine whether someone tends to be more or less misanthropic. [12]


It is not surprising that the empirical confirmation that the following ideological attitudes are particularly important factors for misanthropy: a person's inclination towards authoritarianism, i.e. an exaggerated positive attitude towards law-and-order and at the same time the willingness to obey, the social dominance orientation, i.e. the explicit endorsement of social hierarchies, and the general rejection of cultural and religious diversity, which is related to a higher level of approval for all elements of group-related misanthropy, e.g. also with homophobia and sexism. Compared to many of our European neighbors, the understanding of a diverse society in Germany is underdeveloped. This is at least supported by findings according to which respondents in Germany, compared to those in many other European countries, are particularly seldom of the opinion that "Muslim culture" is a good fit for their country. [13] Misanthropy is also promoted by an economist value system that judges people according to their usefulness. In addition, respondents who feel disoriented in the modern world (recorded via the construct of the anomia) tend to be more group-related enmity. On the other hand, contact with those who are considered "different" has a protective effect against misanthropy. It is noteworthy that this protection is not limited to the group with which there is contact, but also has a positive effect on attitudes towards other social groups. For example, those who maintain contact with immigrant people are not only less inclined to xenophobia, but also, for example, less to homophobia.

Economic situation

Many explanatory approaches attribute great importance to the development of group-related enmity, especially the economic situation. But the widespread opinion that poverty is misanthropic does not go far enough. Less than the actual income, the subjective feeling of being worse off compared to others leads to more group-related misanthropy. The demand for one's own economic, social and political participation unfortunately in no way means showing more solidarity with others. For example, those who complain about their own political powerlessness tend to devalue weak groups. The feeling of threat is also important - also and especially of one's own social status. The extent of group-related misanthropy increased with the financial and economic crisis, especially among those who currently felt threatened by the crisis.

So it is more subjective views than economic facts that are responsible for misanthropy. This is exactly where right-wing populist currents come into play: They attack people with their actual or even just felt poverty - or other characteristics that indicate social status - and divert their anger or desperation to declared scapegoats by stirring up the feeling of comparison To have missed out on these and to be threatened by these groups. This is particularly evident in anti-Semitism, but also in the agitation against Muslims, Roma and refugees. The devaluation of homosexual people and the rejection of gender equality can also be found in the argumentation, which is designed to defend one's own supremacy against an alleged threat or to upgrade one's own group (and ultimately one's own person). [14 ] The Pegida demonstrations in winter 2014/15 were exemplary of this right-wing populist strategy.