UO study finds new links to dehumanization of immigrants

Protest near border wall

Word choices and the endorsement of social harms, like support for the death penalty and views on gun laws, are indicators of Americans most likely to dehumanize immigrants and favor harsh treatment for illegally entering the U.S.

That combination emerged from a University of Oregon study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study pulled equally from people who identify as Democrats or Republicans. It also concludes that “a substantial number of Americans can be classified as dehumanizers.”

Dehumanization refers to depriving a person or group of fundamental human qualities. It is complex process but identifiable by taking a holistic view of individuals, said David Markowitz, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication, who led the study.

“This study investigates how treating immigrants as less than human is associated with a range of characteristics largely unexplored by prior research,” Markowitz said. “We demonstrate that dehumanization manifests in a range of new characteristics, such as policy beliefs and how people talk.”

While the study explored characteristics of people who dehumanize immigrants entering the U.S. along the southern border, the findings also could relate to discrimination faced by Asians over the coronavirus pandemic, based on preliminary data in a new project led by Ellen Peters, director of the UO’s Center for Science Communication Research and a Philip H. Knight Chair.

“This ongoing research suggests that those who dehumanize Asians and Asian Americans tend to believe that the virus poses less of a human health risk,” said Markowitz, who is involved in the research. “Generally, people who dehumanize Asians and Asian Americans during the time of COVID-19 believe that the virus is less of a problem.”

In the newly published study, Markowitz and UO psychologist Paul Slovic sought to dig deeper into dehumanization, beyond often-discussed factors such as hatred toward outside groups and extreme racism. In the study, they took 468 participants, recruited online, through a complex series of questions aimed at understanding how people dehumanize immigrants.

Participants were randomly assigned to scenarios that either involved a lone immigrant or an immigrant with a child being caught entering the country illegally. Participants in each scenario were then asked how much jail time, from none to life in jail, should be assessed. Subsequently, participants were asked to write about their judgments.

Moving forward, the participants answered questions designed to probe additional layers of dehumanization related to social, psychological and demographic issues.

Markowitz and Slovic evaluated the written responses for rates of impersonal pronouns, the use of words associated with power, and emotion. Dehumanizers wrote about immigrants in more impersonal terms, from a position of power and with more negative emotion, the researchers determined.

Words beyond callous metaphors, they wrote, “are crucial because they provide an opportunity to evaluate potentially large-scale and pervasive dehumanization that exists online through verbal behavior, such as alt-right chatrooms, instead of relying on self-report measures alone.”

The researchers next focused on how dehumanization connected to social harms. Those who endorsed social harms related to protecting American rights to own guns, the death penalty and harsh raids on immigrants tended to dehumanize more and identified as conservative. Such individuals were also more likely to endorse lengthy jail time for illegal immigrants.

“The support for social harms, particularly about guns and the death penalty, are seemingly unrelated to how one should treat an immigrant, but they matter in a large way,” Markowitz said. “We can move forward by acknowledging our blind spots as individuals.”

The study, which was supported by grants from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and National Science Foundation, is part of an ongoing effort by the researchers to identify how and why people dehumanize illegal immigrants.

“We hope that interdisciplinary social science research can inform how vulnerable populations are treated, with the goal of mitigating cruelty around the world,” Slovic said.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications