Q&A session with Dr. Emile Bruneau on his latest dehumanization research

Q&A session with Dr. Emile Bruneau on his latest dehumanization research

Emile Bruneau is Beyond Conflict’s lead scientist and the director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Bruneau and academic partners recently published a paper entitled: “Beyond dislike: Blatant dehumanization predicts teacher discrimination.” It focuses on understanding the psychological motivations behind paternalistic behaviors engaged in by teachers in Hungary.

Q: What would you like to highlight from your newest work?

Emile Bruneau: I’m excited for this paper to come out. The work on dehumanization started about five years ago, and it was inspired by a quote that a Roma man read at our conference on dehumanization. The quote was about what was being written about the Roma in Europe; it was horribly and blatantly dehumanizing, and that’s really what launched the whole research program into blatant dehumanization.

We have now found all around the world that the forms of blatant dehumanization, saying that another group is less evolved and civilized than your own, is a strong predictor of particularly hostile attitudes and behavioral intentions that people have. An example is the endorsement of a forced sterilization policy for Roma women in Europe; a policy that it was actually enacted in the Czech Republic in the 1990s. The levels of dehumanization that people ascribe to the Roma is a strong correlate of their support for these types of hostile policies, and not just against the Roma but towards all sorts of different marginalized groups, including Muslim immigrants, and between Israelis and Palestinians.

This paper was not looking at really harsh policies, and it wasn’t looking among groups that were in conflict, it was looking specifically at teachers in training and their perceptions of Roma and non-Roma students. Teachers are very interesting because they tend to be very caring, prosocial people and the guardians of social mobility. If you’re held back or if you’re given poor grades, it might limit your access to higher education. Education, of course, is the number one way that you can improve in your social rank in society. In Europe in particular, the system is such that after 8th you are placed into a secondary school track, and if you’re placed into the lowest secondary school track, even if you do great in secondary school, you’re not eligible to go to college from there. Where you are placed after 8th grade is hugely consequential, and so we wanted to look at dehumanization in these circumstances because we thought that this would be a case where maybe dehumanization wouldn’t apply, where more subtle or implicit, or unconscious biases might be driving these types of behaviors among teachers.

We had a number of Hungarian teachers in training do a task. We gave them a number of profiles of 8th grade students, and we asked them to place them into the proper educational track, either the lowest track, which again makes them ineligible for post-secondary education, or the middle track, or the higher track. And unbeknownst to the teachers, half of the profiles had names associated with typically non-Roma names, so ethnic majority Hungarian names and the other half of these profiles had typically Roma names. However, the profiles were perfectly matched so that the average scores of the Roma profiles and the non-Roma profiles were identical. They were perfectly equally qualified, and what we wanted to see is for the equally qualified students, would teachers nonetheless discriminate against the Roma students and place them in lower educational tracks? What we found is indeed they did. Then the most important question was why, what was the motivation, and so we measured very subtle dehumanization, in addition to our classic measure of blatant dehumanization, and a measure of just dislike of the Roma, a feeling thermometer. What we found is that the subtle dehumanization didn’t predict teacher discrimination at all, that is teachers with high levels of subtle discrimination and low levels of subtle discrimination, had this discriminatory behavior equally. And the same was true for teachers based on how much they liked or disliked the Roma. That didn’t predict at all whether they discriminated against these Roma students, but what it did predict was their levels of blatant dehumanization.

If they felt that the Roma were less evolved and civilized than non-Roma, then they discriminated against these Roma students by placing them into lower educational tracks. Interestingly the subset of these teachers that expressed the most discrimination felt very warmly towards the Roma yet simultaneously dehumanized them on this dehumanization scale. And what I think is so significant about this is that there are a group of horrendous behaviors from colonial times, for example cutting off people’s hands if they don’t gather enough of the crop that you want, that obviously, would be associated with dehumanization, with the moral disregard for others. But there’s a whole other set of behaviors that are a little bit more difficult to explain associated with paternalism by people who really feel like these are their subjects and that they’re taking care of the native population. An example of a paternalist policy is the forced removal of native children from their families to educate them in western-style boarding schools. These types of behaviors are hard to explain just with hostility, or prejudice, because they often seem to be motivated by general caring, yet they’re just as damaging to a population. So I think this helps explain the psychological profile that would be necessary to drive those types of policies, that is warmth for a native population but simultaneously thinking of them as less than human.

Q: How could we apply these findings to change policies, including in education? 

Emile Bruneau: Well, one thing I think it does is it might help guide how we think of interventions for teachers. I think that the standard approach is to try to get teachers to like the Roma more; they’re all prejudice reduction and affiliative interventions. But what this research suggests is that increasing their liking is not going to solve anything, in fact, the teachers that were expressing the greatest levels of discrimination were the teachers that liked the Roma already the most. What’s needed is a change in perception about the essential nature of who Roma are versus non-Roma, this view that the Roma are somehow essentially kind of less worthy and less evolved than non-Roma. It suggests that the type of intervention that’s employed is very different than the one naturally gravitates to now.

Q: Can you tell us more about, why Hungary?

Emile Bruneau: Well, as I mentioned, Hungary was a focus because the type of rhetoric coming from elites in Hungary was so overtly dehumanizing of the Roma population that it took our collective breath away, and really motivated the research to begin with. I think there was a kind of naive view certainly in the education academic community that with these types of blatant dehumanization views, people would not admit to them even if they held them. And so Hungary is important because it was the first place we saw people willing, not just the political leads but average everyday Hungarians to report these levels of blatant dehumanization and it emboldened us to look beyond Hungary, and we found that Hungary is not at all an anomaly. In every country we’ve looked at, there’s at least one marginalized group that people report pretty substantial levels of dehumanization towards.

Q: How do you think this research relates to the US?

Emile Bruneau: There are certain groups in the U.S that are dehumanized, we’ve seen this quite a bit. The most recent example is migrants on the southern border. The level of dehumanization for migrants on the southern border is quite high, this is associated with a lack of empathy for parents whose children are removed. For example, when they try to cross the border into the U.S. I think what’s important about it is that things that lead to dehumanization, the perceptions that undergird peoples dehumanization of others may be very different than the types of perceptions that underlie prejudice or dislike toward another group. These can be things like what we found on the southern border is that people’s dehumanization of migrants on the southern border is enlarged, partly informed by who they think these migrants are. The degree to which they overestimate the proportion of migrants who are gang members, for example, or the proportion of children at the southern border who are being used by adults to gain entry into the U.S.; the actual percentages are extraordinarily low, both of these below one percent, but Americans on average think that a quarter to a third of the migrants are gang members associated with gangs, and that the children are being used as props by adults who aren’t their parents to gain entry. So, the massive inflations in the actual percentages are the types of things that drive people’s dehumanization of migrants on the southern border. What kind of people would use children to gain entry? And I think their conclusion is, “well these people aren’t as civilized as we are, we wouldn’t do something like that.” I think understanding the underlying perceptions and maybe addressing them especially when they’re so wrong, so erroneous, and so overblown, that that might be an important way to intervene: by chipping away at the erroneous perceptions that people have that kind of build this dehumanization, and focusing especially on dehumanization because it’s such a strong predictor of support for really hostile policies toward other groups.

Q: What is next in terms of research on dehumanization?

Emile Bruneau: Well, there are a lot of different directions that we’re going. We found that dehumanization is incredibly relevant to particularly hostile policies towards marginalized groups. It’s very important that we try to address this. This paper among Hungarian teachers illustrates that it’s also relevant for what we thought might be behaviors that are driven more by subtle, or implicit biases. I think it’s important for us to continue down this path, trying to understand what types of paternalistic policies; it can be really damaging for a community. And trying to understand, again, what are the drivers underlying those perceptions of dehumanization and can we start addressing those? So doing work both in the communities in which this is relevant are vast, and it’s relevant for teachers in training in eastern Europe. It’s relevant for looking at reintegration programs for ex-combatants in conflict regions. The population often view them, especially after years of propaganda, as being less civilized, and this hinders people’s willingness to reintegrate ex-combatants. Once hostility is upended, and if they resist that effort there might be a conflict relapse. In contexts as diverse as educating our youth and preventing full-scale internal conflict in countries, dehumanization seems to be incredibly relevant and we’re kind of pursuing this research and seeing if we can push it and really apply the science to work for peace.

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