New Research on Dehumanization Sheds Light on Americans’ Views of Muslims

In recent days, the news cycle has been full of coverage of Ahmed the Clockmaker’s unfair arrest, Ben Carson’s opposition to a Muslim president, and Donald Trump’s lacking response to a supporter who stated: “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims…we have training camps brewing where they want to kill us. That’s my question, when can we get rid of ’em?”

Amid the media frenzy surrounding these stories, a newly published psychology study is making the rounds online, offering a possible explanation for why the 14-year-old American Muslim inventor described his arrest this way: “It made me feel like I wasn’t human.”

Seeking to challenge the widely accepted notion that dehumanization—seeing others as “less than human”—is not simply a subtle, unconscious mental process, the researchers designed a series of experiments to study “blatant dehumanization” of different ethnic and religious groups. They gave their research subjects a picture of the famous “ascent of man” image, which shows a modern human “evolving” from an “ape-like human ancestor.” Along the image was a list of different groups and this prompt:

“People can vary in how human-like they seem. Some people seem highly evolved whereas others seem no different than lower animals. Using the image below, indicate using the sliders how evolved you consider the average member of each group to be.”

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This is a screenshot of what the study participants were shown.

In one experiment, a “mostly white, liberal-leaning sample of Americans” was asked to evaluate Americans, Arabs, Europeans, and Muslims, among others. Muslims, they found, where “the most readily dehumanized group,” trailing Americans in their “evolved” nature by 12 to 15 points. In another study, which was conducted before and after the Boston Marathon bombing, found that respondents “dehumanized” Arabs more readily after the attack than they did before. When people feel threatened by a perceived group, they tend to dehumanized them, the report explains.

In their op-ed published last week in the Washington Post, the researchers write that dehumanization is not the same as “dislike” or “prejudice;” it is unique and perhaps more dangerous than general negative feelings. When people see others as less than human, they tolerate treatment of them that they wouldn’t accept for themselves.

“Most importantly, dehumanization is associated with less sympathy and more aggression. For example, in one study, we gave participants a story about two children (one Arab, one white) caught shoplifting in a store. The police detained the Arab child but sent the white child home. Those who dehumanized Arabs and Muslims were less likely to feel sympathy towards the Arab child. Even more troublingly, we observed that dehumanization of Arabs and Muslims was associated with supporting highly aggressive policies such as drone strikes in the Middle East and torture of Arabs and Muslims. Across our work, dehumanization tends to be associated with aggressive responses even when we statistically account for individuals’ dislike of Arabs and Muslims, suggesting that dehumanization has a unique influence.”

In an article about the study published in City Lab, an outlet associated with Atlantic media, Tanvi Misra writes that in other experiments “dehumanization was strongly associated with social dominance orientation—the belief that that some groups should maintain superiority over others.”

Misra also points out that this dehumanization is nothing new:

“It’s been used to explain and justify aggressive actions of one group towards another throughout history. In Nazi Germany, propaganda posters and movies represented Jews as rats. Many who opposed abolition of slavery compared African Americans to apes.”

These comparisons of unpopular groups to animals, especially insects and rodents, also have contemporary analogues. In the lead up to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in which Hutus slaughtered nearly one million Tutsis, a Hutu radio station contributed to the Tutsis’ dehumanization by calling them “cockroaches.” Even today, in a presidential candidate’s television ad running in some states, we see subtle associations made between Muslims and a desert-dwelling scorpion.

Screenshot from “Scorpion” advertisement

This research provides important insights into the country’s current climate around Muslims, showing how the unique phenomenon of dehumanization might predict or impact Americans’ attitudes and behaviors toward their Muslim neighbors and Muslims across the globe.

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