How Slave Owners Justified Dehumanizing Acts. A Psychological Perspective

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How Slave Owners Justified Dehumanizing Acts: A Psychological Perspective

When slavery is discussed today it is immediately associated with evil, torture, and cruelty that resulted and still results in the scarring of millions of lives. However, this was not always the case. Before the abolitionist movement, slaveholders and slave traders felt no need to justify their actions. Though it may seem like it, not all slaveholders were entirely wicked beings; they were simply raised in an environment and era that saw slavery as acceptable. Regardless of this, there is still no denying the horrors that transpired as a result of slavery.

How could a slaveholder possibly justify holding another human being hostage merely for economic profit? What could make someone think such violent and cruel actions were defensible? These are fundamental questions that have burned in the back of many minds throughout the world. If it weren’t for the study of psychology, these questions would be nearly impossible to answer. Psychology plays a crucial role in the understanding of why people do what they do. Therefore, one cannot fully comprehend the concept of slavery from the slaveholders’ point of view without consulting the ever-expanding domain of psychology.

Slaveholders considered slaves to be extremely beneath them. Some even took this further to say that slaves deserved to be enslaved. As Jews were referred to as rats during the Holocaust, and Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches in the Rwandan genocide; slaves were referred to as and treated like animals, the property of slaveholders. In 1975, psychologist Albert Bandura concluded, through his research, that dehumanizing victims would lead to increased aggression from perpetrators. This theory proved to be accurate in the case of slavery when slaveholders used their self-image of superiority to commit brutal actions towards those who they saw as subhuman. The dehumanization of slaves gave way for slaveholders to maintain a mindset of thinking that “[i]f the victim is not human, then the actions cannot be inhumane.” (Fielding, 2012) Slaveholders dehumanized slaves in such a way that a mental ‘loophole’ was created that would supposedly justify their actions. The study of the human mind proves useful when trying to understand slaveholders’ actions and mentalities in regard to slavery.

Considering slaves were seen as animals, many slaveholders believed that they were improving the lives of slaves. Many even claimed that Africans were made to work as slaves due to the higher melatonin in African skin which supposedly made them more fit to work in hotter and harsher temperatures. (Furtado, 2016) The term ‘cognitive dissonance’ can be used to explain why slaveholders came to this conclusion. Cognitive dissonance, a term first proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger, is a feeling of discomfort when someone acts against their moral instinct. Naturally, humans want to eliminate that discomfort and try to resolve it immediately. When psychologist Joy Degruy researched a term she called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, she declared the following:

The difference between the actions of the Europeans (i.e., enslaving, raping, and killing) and their beliefs about themselves (i.e., ‘We are good Christians’) was so great and the cognitive dissonance so painful, that they were obliged to go to great lengths in order to survive their own horrific behavior. (Degruy, 2005) This being the case, to survive their horrific behaviour, slaveholders claimed that slavery was good for slaves. They argued that African societies were uneducated, savage, and useless. Slaveholders insisted that slaves lacked the basic ability to control their own lives and make their own decisions, and were, therefore, better off in a system that ran their lives for them.

Psychological terms like cognitive dissonance help enhance understanding of how it was possible that so many people accepted slavery and made excuses for it.

While slavery in and of itself was pure evil, it was not done simply for that reason. In fact, a big contributor to why slavery went on for so many years was that it was seen as a business. Slaveholders regarded slavery as essential. When contradicted about slavery, American politician Stephen Miller publicly announced the following:

Slavery is not a national evil; on the contrary, it is a national benefit. The agricultural wealth of the country is found in those states owning slaves… (Miller, 1829) It was believed that slaveholders’ livelihood and the stability of the economy depended on slavery. As slavery was their business, slaveholders were the bosses, which put them in a position of power. Stanford professor and psychologist Philip Zimbardo is well known for his Stanford prison experiment that was held in 1971. He assigned paid volunteers that played parts as either inmates or guards in a mimic prison in the basement of Stanford’s psychology building. Over just a few days, the guards became increasingly cruel, and the prisoners more compliant and miserable. Though it was supposed to last two weeks, the situation escalated quickly and the experiment ended after only five days. (Resnick, 2018) Zimbardo’s experiment showed how easily people can use their positions of power to abuse others. Slaveholders were blinded by the power they possessed over their slaves, and many used violence to maintain and assure their position. The reason slavery lasted as long as it did was to secure power and financial gain; the consequences were ignored. Psychology experiments like Zimbardo’s help others to understand what was going through the minds of slaveholders, and how they justified their actions to themselves and others.

Though slaveholders were certainly placed in situations that encouraged slavery, there is no excusing the dreadful acts that were committed over time. No matter how unsettling it may be, psychology studies show that everyone is capable of committing evil acts depending on the situation that they are in. As Philip Zimbardo would say, “The line between good and evil is permeable and almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.” (Zimbardo, n.d.) Hence, the public should make an effort to recognize the mistakes that were made in history, and the lies that may be told to justify immoral actions. Understanding why and how things went wrong is vital in order to avoid such tragedies from repeating themselves.


Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (2004, August 27). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. ScienceDirect.

Degruy, J. (2005, January 1). Post traumatic slave syndrome. [PDF file]. Furtado, M. (2016, August 1). Dismantling White Privilege: The White Psychology of Slavery.

Outfront. sychology-slavery/ Philip G. Zimbardo Quotes (Author of The Lucifer Effect). (n.d.). Goodreads.

Resnick, B. (2018, June 28). Philip Zimbardo defends the Stanford Prison Experiment, his most famous work. Vox. t-zimbardo-interview Resnick, B. (2017, March 7).

The dark psychology of dehumanization, explained. Vox. y-explained

Slavery as a positive good in the United States. (2020, April 13). In Wikipedia


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How Slave Owners Justified Dehumanizing Acts. A Psychological Perspective
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acts, dehumanizing, justified, owners, perspective, psychological, slave
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Maya Koomans (Author), 2020, How Slave Owners Justified Dehumanizing Acts. A Psychological Perspective, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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