Study Explores How Dehumanizing Language Influences Attitudes Toward Immigrants

By Stephen Utych, Assistant Professor of Politica Science at Boise State University

In short, what is the study about?

This study examines how language that dehumanizes immigrants, using disease metaphors, influences both emotional responses towards immigrants and general attitudes towards immigrants. I find that dehumanizing language has relatively stark effects on attitudes toward immigrants, leading individuals to prefer more restrictive immigration policy when exposed to dehumanizing language, compared to those who see immigrants described using negative, but non-dehumanizing language. This effect is partially caused by an increase in anger and disgust towards immigrants that is created by dehumanization.

What would be the most important take-home messages from the study?

Some important messages of this study are, first of all, words matter. How we talk about groups in society has an important and meaningful impact on how they are viewed. When a group, especially a marginalized group like undocumented immigrants, is referred to in terms that cast them as less than human, this can have serious consequences for how other individuals want to treat members of that group, and these consequences are uniformly negative for the dehumanized group members. A second takeaway is that we should consider how emotions can be manipulated, and influence our attitudes and behaviors. When we make people feel angry or disgusted towards groups in society, it leads to negative attitudes towards these groups. Dehumanization is one means through which this can occur, but it’s far from the only avenue.

How are these findings important in practice?

I think we see the importance of this in the ongoing immigration debate today. A lot of the rhetoric about immigrants uses words that portray them as less than human, and we know this has real consequences for attitudes towards immigrants. I think it’s important for the public, in general, to understand how the media and political elites may portray groups in society, and what consequences these portrayals can have on their own attitudes. If individuals understand that how they feel towards others may be caused by how those others are portrayed, they may be able to counter some of these negative effects. In today’s era of polarization, it is often easy to dislike another group of people, but it’s important for people to think about why they may feel this way.

What other studies can be recommended to further an understanding/application of the findings?

There are a few avenues of further research to explore. First, if dehumanization has such a negative effect on attitudes towards marginalized groups, can we combat this by humanizing these groups? I’m not entirely sure we can, but future work could look at how humanization may operate, especially as a counter to dehumanizing rhetoric. I also solely focus on dehumanization as a disease in this paper. There are many other types of dehumanization; individuals can be dehumanized in comparison to animals, machines, vermin, or natural disasters, among other things. Future work should investigate the extent to which these different types of dehumanization may cause distinct emotional reactions, and have distinct attitudinal consequences.

Link to the primary article

Utych, S. M. (2017).  How dehumanization influences attitudes toward immigrants. Political Research Quarterly. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/1065912917744897



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