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Views on Guns, Death Penalty Linked to Harsh Treatment of Immigrants

The words people use and their beliefs about certain controversial issues, such as the death penalty and gun rights, can predict attitudes favoring the harsh treatment and dehumanization of illegal immigrants, according to a new online study that pulled equally from people who identified as Democrats or Republicans.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For the study, researchers from the University of Oregon (UO) investigated the traits of those who dehumanize immigrants, beyond the often-discussed factors such as hatred toward outside groups and extreme racism.

Dehumanization — defined as depriving a person or group of fundamental human qualities — is a complex process, but identifiable by taking a holistic view of individuals, said communication professor David M. Markowitz, a UO assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication.

“This study investigates how treating immigrants as less than human is associated with a range of characteristics largely unexplored by prior research,” said Markowitz, who uses computational approaches to analyze how social and psychological phenomena are reflected in language.

“We demonstrate that dehumanization manifests in a range of new characteristics, such as policy beliefs and how people talk.”

The newly identified factors emerged as Markowitz and UO psychologist Paul Slovic, an expert on decision-making and risk perception, surveyed 468 participants with a complex series of questions aimed at understanding how people dehumanize immigrants.

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

Next, the participants answered a myriad questions designed to probe additional layers of dehumanization related to social, psychological and demographic issues.

The research team evaluated the written responses for rates of impersonal pronouns, the use of words associated with power, and emotion. Words that people use, the researchers noted, provide important clues about psychological dynamics and how people think and feel about a specific group.

Words, 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.”

Indeed, the researchers found, dehumanizers wrote about immigrants in more impersonal terms, from a position of power and with more negative emotion.

The researchers next focused on how dehumanization was associated with 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.

Markowitz and Slovic concluded that, “a substantial number of Americans can be classified as dehumanizers.”

“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.

Source: University of Oregon

Views on Guns, Death Penalty Linked to Harsh Treatment of Immigrants

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Views on Guns, Death Penalty Linked to Harsh Treatment of Immigrants. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 1 May 2020 (Originally: 1 May 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 1 May 2020
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