The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

The Dehumanization of Black People

Black Faces Make it Easier to Identify Apes

Recent research tested if White Americans implicitly dehumanize Black Americans.

If scientists want to find cures for medical diseases/illnesses, they need to first understand the causes of the diseases/illnesses. This requires a deep understanding of both the human body and chemistry. And this can only be obtained through scientific research.

The same thing applies to social problems, such as the prejudice and dehumanization that can exist between various groups. If these social problems are to be alleviated, researchers must uncover them. There is simply no way to do so otherwise. It wold be akin to trying to cure malaria, without knowing what malaria is, or that it even exists.

Thus, although research uncovering racism, sexism and other negative social problems is often unpleasant (and rightfully so), it is necessary and important.

Phillip Goff, a psychologist at Penn State University, and colleagues recently tested Americans implicit associations between Black people and apes. Implicit associations (as opposed to conscious, explicit associations) are largely unconscious. As such, they are arguably well suited to measure people's true attitudes, as opposed to what they tell you when you explicitly ask them. (This does not mean, however, that they cannot be changed, although the research addressing this issue is just now emerging).

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In one study, these researchers subliminally primed participants with White or Black faces. The task for the participants was to correctly identify the images they later saw as quickly as possible. All participants were then shown an image of an ape, that became progressively more clear with each passing image.

When primed with Black faces, participants took fewer slides to correctly identify the image as an Ape. This suggests that the Black faces increased the cognitive accessibility (the thought level) of apes, which suggests that people associate Black people with apes.

In a second study, these researchers examined historical documents of executions. They found that Black defendents were more likely to have animal words used to describe them. And further, the more animal words were used to describe the criminals in these trials, the more likely the person was to be executed.

This isn't to say that if you asked people if they associate apes with Black people, that they would know this about themselves. Like I said, these are implicit associations that are outside of consciousness.

These implicit associations are of consequence, however.  For instance, research shows that primes that people are not aware of exert a huge influence on behavior (e.g., implicit aggression primes, for instance, increase aggression).

So, although no one would probably say they think Black people are ape-like, research shows that, at an implicit (but important) level, people do think just that.

Perhaps, findings like this, by uncovering such dehumanization, can aid in the future reduction of racial conflict.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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