How Dehumanization Influences Attitudes toward Immigrants

AuthorStephen M. Utych
Date01 June 2018
Published date01 June 2018
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18RLhIzLOaGZzT/input 744897PRQXXX10.1177/1065912917744897Political Research QuarterlyUtych
Political Research Quarterly
2018, Vol. 71(2) 440 –452
How Dehumanization Influences
© 2017 University of Utah
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Attitudes toward Immigrants
DOI: 10.1177/1065912917744897
Stephen M. Utych1
Immigrants, as a group, are frequently described in ways, such as vermin or disease, that portray them as less than
human. This type of dehumanizing language leads to negative emotional responses and negative attitudes toward
the dehumanized group. This paper examines how the dehumanization of immigrants influences immigration policy
attitudes. I use original experimental data to show that dehumanization leads to more negative immigration attitudes.
I further find that these negative attitudes are mediated by the role of emotion. Dehumanization increases anger and
disgust toward immigrants, which causes anti-immigrant sentiment.
political psychology, dehumanization, language, emotions
Crooked Hillary Clinton wants to flood our country with
dehumanizing language to refer to Syrian immigrants as
Syrian immigrants that we know little or nothing about. The
a “flood.” This comparison of individuals with a natural
danger is massive. NO!
disaster is a frequent way political elites use dehumaniza-
tion. By using analogies to disasters, vermin, or disease,
—Donald Trump via Twitter, July 27, 20161
political elites are able to deny dehumanized individuals
or groups some level of humanity, which makes it easier
Political elites can employ numerous strategies to con-
for the American public to support harsh and punitive
vince the public to agree with their policy positions.
action against them.
Perhaps one of the most powerful ways is to denigrate the
Despite Trump’s often inflammatory rhetoric, dehu-
out-group affected by the legislation. Discriminatory atti-
manization is not new in American political life. In the
tudes toward out-groups, and preferential treatment of in-
early twentieth century, dehumanizing language was used
groups, is a long-established trait of human behavior (see
frequently to describe immigrants entering the country
Sumner 1906). One tactic used to denigrate out-groups is
(O’Brien 2003). Often, dehumanization takes the form of
dehumanization, which denies groups of individuals the
comparing out-groups to vermin or disease. This form of
same human status given to others (Haslam 2006). I focus
dehumanization is especially powerful, as it denies attri-
on a type of dehumanization referred to by social psy-
butes of affect and cognition to the group that is dehu-
chologists as “animalistic dehumanization.”2 This type of
manized (Tipler and Ruscher 2014). At its most extreme,
dehumanization denies out-groups traits that are uniquely
dehumanization can create severely negative images of
human—things such as the ability to reason, think criti-
entire groups in society. During World War II, American
cally, or feel emotions—that are typically thought of as
propaganda typically dehumanized the Japanese as apes
what separates human beings from other living organisms
or other lower forms of animals, while Nazi propaganda
(Haslam 2006). Dehumanization leads to harsher judg-
displayed Jewish individuals as pests and vermin, such as
ments of a wide array of groups across a range of political
roaches (Dower 1986; Russell 1996). Perhaps most trou-
issues, such as the Japanese in World War II (Dower
bling, this dehumanization seemed to be quite effective at
1986; Russell 1996), African Americans on trial for
engendering hatred toward the dehumanized groups. I
murder (Goff et al. 2008), natural disaster victims
argue that dehumanization can occur more subtly, through
(Andrighetto et al. 2014; Cuddy, Rock, and Norton 2007),
and terrorists (Waytz and Epley 2012).
1Boise State University, ID, USA
In the above Tweet, Trump argues that Hillary Clinton
wants to flood the United States with Syrian immigrants.
Corresponding Author:
Stephen M. Utych, Department of Political Science, Boise State
In this comment, Trump not only takes a tone opposed to
University, 1910 University Drive, MS 1935, Boise, ID 83725, USA.
Clinton’s (supposed) policy position, but uses a form of

minor changes in wording, rather than outright dehuman-
increasingly supportive of ways to emphasize their in-
izing images like those present during World War II. This
group, in a way that weaker identifiers are not (Pérez
provides an important perspective for scholars of race
2015b). When African Americans are exposed to rhetoric
and ethnic politics, as dehumanizing language is most
emphasizing minority health concerns, they tend to view
often used against minority groups, and can have substan-
the issue as more important, in a way that whites do not
tial negative consequences for these groups.
(Gillion 2017). In addition, rhetoric is often affect-laden
Dehumanizing language creates both cognitive and
and emotional. Simply seeing words one has strong nega-
emotional responses in individuals. Directly, dehuman-
tive reactions toward leads to increasingly negative evalu-
ization should lead to more negative attitudes toward
ations of politicians and policies (Utych 2017).
immigrants, as it provides a moral justification for pun-
Emotional responses, however, do not operate in a vac-
ishment of out-groups. In addition, I focus in greater
uum. Literature on cognitive appraisals of emotions can
depth on the emotional responses caused by dehumaniza-
inform how individuals respond emotionally to rhetoric.
tion. I expect that the direct effect of dehumanization on
Depending on how an individual appraises the situation
attitudes toward immigrants is partially mediated by the
they are in, they are likely to respond with different emo-
role of emotion. That is, dehumanizing language should
tions (Roseman 1991). This suggests that the same events
increase negative emotional responses of fear, anger, and
can trigger different emotions in different individuals,
disgust toward immigrants, which will in turn cause more
depending upon how they perceive them (Lerner and
anti-immigrant attitudes. I draw upon original experi-
Keltner 2000). Anger, in particular, has many distinct
mental data to determine how dehumanizing immigrants
appraisals that predict its development: an external cause,
as a disease influences attitudes toward immigration to
coping potential, perceptions of unfairness of the situa-
test these predictions. Given that rhetoric that dehuman-
tion, and familiarity of a threat (Brader and Marcus 2013).
izes out-groups is relatively common in current political
In this case, a study of a policy such as illegal immigration
speech, it is important to understand how this rhetoric can
is ripe to produce anger. Since individuals can view immi-
influence attitudes toward immigrants.
gration as caused externally by foreign nationals, many
individuals believe the problem can be combated, it is per-
Dehumanization, Language, and
ceived as a crime, and has been present in America for a
Political Attitudes
long time. Another important discrete emotion, related to
dehumanization generally and immigration specifically, is
Language is an important factor in determining political
disgust, or the fear of contamination. Immigrants are fre-
attitudes. The language an individual speaks (Pérez and
quently displayed as potential contaminants (O’Brien
Tavits 2017), or the language in which an interview is
2003), and describing individuals as subhuman often leads
conducted (Pérez 2016), have been shown to have conse-
to this contamination threat (Haslam 2006).
quences in determining attitudinal responses. This work
To examine the interplay of political rhetoric and neg-
frequently focuses on how language of interview can
ative emotional responses, I examine a specific type of
influence Latino/a attitudes toward immigration policy,
rhetoric, dehumanization, that influences judgments of
though it extends into other policy areas (Lee and Pérez
out-groups through multiple channels. The first channel
2014). From this emerging literature, it is clear that lan-
is cognitive, through moral exclusion of dehumanized
guage matters. However, even within the same language,
groups. Dehumanization allows individuals to morally
word choice itself can provide different cognitive influ-
disengage from reprehensible conduct by changing how
ence on decision making.
they look at the victim of the conduct (Bandura 2002).
Politicians, and political elites in general, are con-
When groups are dehumanized, they are excluded from
cerned with political rhetoric. Politicians frequently use
the typical moral consideration given to other human
words or language that they believe will increase public
beings (Haslam 2006). By denying cognition to dehu-
support of their preferred policies (Riker 1996), and have
manized groups, individuals will view them as less capa-
long encouraged the tailoring of these comments to spe-
ble of realizing they have been treated poorly, which
cific audiences to maximize their impact (Aristotle 1991).
leads to an increased willingness to punish these groups
However, this rhetoric can have increasing consequences

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