Steve Utych is an assistant professor of political science at Boise State University. His research focuses on political psychology, specifically the role of language and emotions in politics.
The issue of immigration played a key role in the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, with President Donald Trump promising to build a wall along the U.S. and Mexico border, and to restrict the number of refugees allowed to immigrate to the U.S. During the campaign and since, Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants has frequently taken a dehumanizing tone, as evidenced in a campaign speech in which he noted “We are letting people come in from terrorist nations that shouldn’t be allowed because you can’t vet them. We’re dealing with animals.” Referring to immigrants or refugees as animals is a common and effective tactic from those opposed to immigration to negatively influence public opinion. This tactic is consistent with a phenomenon scholars refer to as dehumanization.
Dehumanization occurs when human beings are compared to animals, disease, vermin, or some non-living entity. When this is done, individuals are denied equal rights of humanity, since it allows one to view them as an entity that is less than human. This is especially powerful when applied to a racial or ethnic minority. Dehumanization operates by denying traits that social psychologist Nick Haslam refers to as “uniquely human” – traits such as high-order cognition, refined emotions, civility, and morality – to certain groups of human beings. As a consequence, dehumanized groups are often seen as amoral, unintelligent, and incapable of self-control – in short, they are seen as animals rather than as human beings. This allows individuals to cognitively detach from their harsh treatment of dehumanized groups since they are not afforded the same rights as other humans. This especially operates through increasing negative emotions – particularly anger and disgust – toward members of the dehumanized groups.
Dehumanizing, while morally troubling, is often used because it is effective.In World War II, dehumanization helped to facilitate mass-level hatred of Jewish people in Germany, and of the Japanese in the United States.Dehumanization is not new on the political and social scene. During World War II, the Nazis frequently used dehumanization tactics against the Jewish people. This included text and images comparing Jewish individuals to rats, cockroaches, and other vermin. The Nazis went so far as to refer to Jewish people as untermenschen, or subhuman. However, this is not a problem isolated to an abhorrent group such as the Nazis – it has been present in American culture as well. Images of the Japanese during World War II frequently depicted them as monkeys, gorillas, or demons. This type of dehumanization was not used against European enemies, as a majority of Americans were of European descent, making other Europeans more difficult to be portrayed as less than human. Dehumanizing, while morally troubling, is often used because it is effective. In World War II, dehumanization helped to facilitate mass-level hatred of Jewish people in Germany, and of the Japanese in the United States.
HOW DOES DEHUMANIZATION OPERATE?
The denial of uniquely human traits to a group of people helps to create more punitive attitudes toward that group. Often, this is caused by an increased negative emotional response toward that group. When groups are dehumanized, it tends to make people feel angrier toward, and more disgusted by, the dehumanized group. Anger tends to make individuals want to take punitive action – that is, anger encourages citizens to support a policy change, and when that anger is directed toward a dehumanized group, they tend to prefer policies that punish or harm that group. Disgust, or the response to things that we find repulsive, leads individuals to want to avoid and be protected from a threat. If individuals feel disgusted toward a group, they are likely to favor policies to keep them away.
We can observe the effects of dehumanization tactics when we consider the current debate over immigration in the United States. The issue of immigration has played a key role in American politics for decades, but today, the American electorate shows some ambivalence about immigration, with nearly a three-quarters majority in favor of establishing stricter policies on visas, and favoring preventing undocumented immigrants from receiving government benefits, but similar majorities favoring allowing those who arrived in the U.S. as undocumented children to remain in the U.S. This divide often happens along partisan lines, with Republicans favoring building a border wall with Mexico and Democrats overwhelmingly opposed.
DEHUMANIZATION OF IMMIGRANTS – AN EXPERIMENTAL TEST
Given that there are such stark differences in individual attitudes towards immigrants, my research addresses the extent to which the content of news can influence attitudes toward immigrants – in particular, I study how the use of language to dehumanize immigrants can influence support for immigration policy. To this end, I recently conducted an experimental research study using a sample of non-Hispanic white U.S. citizens, collected through Survey Sampling International. In this study, individuals were asked some basic demographic questions, and then randomly assigned to read one of two texts on immigration. The first text, or control text, presented a negative, but non-dehumanizing, text about illegal immigrants. The second text, or treatment text, presented a negative and dehumanizing text about illegal immigrants. The dehumanizing text used language to compare immigrants to natural disasters, vermin, and disease.
I understand that immigration has become a controversial issue these days. However, the movement of immigrants across our border must be controlled. Our nation is negatively impacted by illegal immigration; this situation is getting worse, not better. Some have suggested amnesty as a solution; I believe this is a solution that just exacerbates the problem. Offering amnesty will not end the problem of illegal immigration – it will only make our country let in more immigrants. We have to address this problem at its location. Only increased border security and deportation will serve to control the danger of illegal immigration.
I understand that immigration has become a toxic issue these days. However, the transmission of immigrants across our border must be contained. The body of our nation is plagued by illegal immigration; this disease is getting worse, not better. Some have suggested amnesty as a cure; I believe this is a remedy that kills the patient. Offering amnesty will not eradicate the problem of illegal immigration – it will only make our country absorb more immigrants. We have to attack this problem at its nucleus. Only increased border security and deportation will serve to quarantine the poison of illegal immigration.
Experimental research in social science uses the power of random assignment to make causal claims about political topics. Since individuals were assigned at random to read the non-dehumanizing control text, or the dehumanizing treatment text, we assume that individuals in both the control and treatment group are, on average, similar across a host of demographics and pre-existing attitudes toward immigrants. That is, the only difference between the treatment group and the control group is that the treatment group read a text that dehumanized immigrants , while the control group did not. It is important, however, that the control group read some information, for me to be able to make claims about the causal effect of dehumanization. Since the control group read text that still portrayed immigrants negatively, I am able to attribute differences between the treatment and control group on immigration attitudes solely to the dehumanizing language, rather than simply negative information.
After participants read the text on immigration, they were asked questions about their attitudes toward immigration. These three questions asked individuals to rate their beliefs about whether the number of immigrants from foreign countries should increase, stay the same, or be decreased, the extent to which they support an increase in U.S. border security, and the extent to which they support legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status. For each of these three measures, those exposed to dehumanizing language favor more punitive policies towards immigrants than those exposed to non-dehumanizing language. On average, those in the dehumanization treatment preferred to decrease the level of immigrants, increase border security, and oppose legal status for undocumented immigrants. These effects were roughly one-third to one-half of the difference between liberals and conservatives.
Participants in this study were also asked to provide their emotional reactions toward immigrants. Those in the dehumanization treatment volunteered that they were angrier toward immigrants, and more disgusted by immigrants, than those in the non-dehumanization control group. These effects were again roughly one-third to one-half the magnitude of the difference between liberals and conservatives. This shows a rather powerful effect – dehumanization “works.” When immigrants are dehumanized, individuals are more likely to support more restrictive immigration policies, and feel higher levels of negative emotions toward immigrants.
THE ROLE OF EMOTIONS IN DEHUMANIZATION
However, there is one additional step in my research. Most social science research, and indeed most research generally, follows a framework that demonstrates that one variable, X, causes another variable, Y. In this study, I found that dehumanizing language (X) causes more restrictive attitudes toward immigration (Y). However, that is not the full extent of my explanation for the effect of dehumanizing language. I turn to an analytical technique called mediation analysis to present an additional explanation of the effects of dehumanization. In mediation analysis, we test a different relationship. Instead of simply saying X causes Y, we expand this to say X causes some other variable, Z, which then causes Y. In this study, I argue that dehumanizing language (X) causes a negative emotional response to immigrants through anger and disgust (Z), which then causes more restrictive attitudes toward immigration (Y).
Those exposed to dehumanizing language were more likely to feel anger and disgust toward immigrants. These feelings of anger and disgust then predicted increased negative attitudes towards immigrants. My analysis finds that this is indeed the case. Those exposed to dehumanizing language were more likely to feel anger and disgust toward immigrants. These feelings of anger and disgust then predicted increased negative attitudes towards immigrants. I find what is referred to as a “partial” mediating effect of anger and disgust. The increase in anger and disgust toward immigrants caused by exposure to dehumanization of immigrants accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of the effect of dehumanizing language on attitudes toward immigration. This suggest that dehumanization itself has some effect directly on immigration attitudes, but part of that effect is observed because dehumanizing language makes individuals feel more negatively about immigrants.
Many individuals find the use of dehumanization to be troubling – making human beings seem less than human is a tactic frequently employed by groups, such as the Nazis, who committed atrocious genocides. Simply by using words to compare a group of people to animals, disease, or vermin, you can make individuals dislike that group. However, recently some attention has been drawn to the issue of dehumanization, both in politics, and in the racialized dehumanization in athletics. The cognitive biases caused by dehumanization are typically subconscious or automatic. When individuals are made aware of these subconscious biases, they are often completely mitigated. In this sense, it is important to talk about dehumanization so citizens can be made aware that it is occurring, and how it may influence their judgments of entire groups of people.