Q. Summarize your study, "A Superhumanization Bias in Whites' Perceptions of Blacks"
We attempted to uncover a particular bias white Americans seem to hold—the tendency to view African Americans as more superhuman than white Americans, and we tested this idea in a number of ways.
In the first set of studies, we essentially tested whether people have cognitive associations between different races and different concepts. For the study, we defined race as white or black people, “superhumanness” as encompassing terms related to magic, mysticism, spirits and ghosts and “humanness” as essentially being a person, being a citizen.
We used very well developed tasks, social cognition literature and implicit association tests that measure how quickly people associate faces of white and black individuals with words associated with “humanness” and “superhumanness”. We also used a similar cognitive test to see how quickly people could identify superhuman and human words after being subliminally presented with a black or white face.
The sum of these initial brief studies essentially showed that people are quicker to associate black faces with superhuman words compared to human words whereas this does not show up or emerge with exposure to white faces.
What else did you find?
Following the findings of these cognitive associations, [in another test] we asked people simply to look at a black face and a white face and discern which of these people were more capable of various superhuman capacities—running faster than a fighter jet, being able to read minds, withstanding hunger and thirst.
Significantly more than half the time, people identified the black person as more capable of superhuman capacities. And this tendency to superhumanize also predicted people’s tendency to say that black people could withstand more pain than white people.
So where do these associations of superhumanness come from?
So really, we’re just adding a psychological [analysis] of an idea that’s been around for a while. For example, Spike Lee has pointed to [this portrayal] in films, such as Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile” or Whoopi Goldberg in “Ghost”, where African American characters have some special, mystical or magical quality, usually to the aid of white people.
There have been sociological mass media studies that used tropes as well—people have talked about the depictions of athletes such as Ray Lewis and Kobe Bryant as being superhuman—the psychological component in our study was to ask whether there’s any meat to these claims.
What about blacks’ perceptions of themselves?
We didn’t evaluate that in our study, but it’s a question we’ve gotten from other people and I think there are several really strong hypotheses that could be tested. You could test whether blacks perceive blacks as being more superhuman than whites, you could also test to see whether blacks perceive blacks and whites as equally superhuman or whether blacks perceive whites as more superhuman than blacks. And if it’s just about some general stereotype or depiction of African Americans that has seeped into our society’s consciousness, we might see that even black people superhumanize other black people as well.
Because we know that whites tend to encounter more whites than blacks, the far effect is driven by some unfamiliarity that whites have with black people. So, perhaps our findings could be driven by whenever by you’re unfamiliar with another race, you might superhumanize the race. Then, of course, the other hypothesis we could test is less interesting—which is that black people might see no difference between blacks and whites. But any way, it’s certainly an important question.
Why did you choose to study this topic?
I’ve always been interested in the process of humanization. I started studying psychology because I was interested in why people anthropomorphize everyday objects like cars, nature and mountains. So we did a lot of work on humanization when I was a grad student and we realized that many of the predictions we made about humanization could be applied to dehumanization.
Simply flipping the predictions could allow us to say something about dehumanization and when we looked at the dehumanization literature, dehumanization had only been discussed in psychology in a very specific way and also in a way that was very blatant surrounding discussion of the Holocaust, or American slavery, etc. So we found that there was a lot of work to be done in the sphere of dehumanization and this work for me represents another way to think about dehumanization that hadn’t really been covered in the literature.
Even though superhumanization ostensibly grants people some “better-than-human” qualities, in doing so it denies human beings a real human essence. The major impetus was to establish the existence of a different type of dehumanization that is equally damaging as saying that someone is subhuman, but sort of looks a bit different because it’s ostensibly positive.
Isn’t it fundamentally difficult to measure people’s perceptions so quantitatively?
Part of the problem we face in studying this is that dehumanization is not something that people want to admit to. It’s fairly common that people don’t want to say something that’s politically incorrect, so that’s one reason we use some of these unconscious measures like the cognitive test. It’s another reason why in our studies, when we asked people to evaluate superhuman capacities we forced people to choose who was more likely to exhibit these capacities, a black person or a white person and they couldn’t say neither.
But, to this point, I think superhumanization is a very interesting form of dehumanization because it almost seems politically correct. Or, at least, it certainly seems more politically correct than calling someone something subhuman. The interesting part of superhumanization to me is that it’s sort of the way of cloaking dehumanization—yet it’s actually just denying someone a human essence in the same way that subhumanization does.
Can studies like these really move the needle towards a better understanding of the minority experience in America?
I’m not sure. I think what moves the needle more is something like we’ve seen in the recent weeks where there are blatant depictions of African Americans as superhuman, as seen in Officer Darren Wilson’s testimony. In fact, his testimony speaks to additional research that shows that African American children are more likely to be seen and tried as adults than white children are. So I would hope that our research plays a small part in moving the discussion, but I think those types of large-scale events are more likely to move the needle.
So how do we go about changing these perceptions?
So I don’t want to be pessimistic about changing perception, but here’s a thought experiment: Imagine we ran our studies today, or imagine we ran our studies the day after Darren Wilson’s testimony was released. Would we see the same results? I’m not sure.
However, perhaps exposure to how superhumanization is a negative might change people’s views, and there’s a really interesting case study on this—a study came out a few years ago about NBA referees exhibiting a racial bias: white referees called more fouls on black players, black referees called more fouls on white players, or something along those lines.
Once this study came out, and it got covered in the news, the same researchers looked at rates of racial bias in NBA foul calls and they found that after new stories came out on the research, racial bias actually disappeared. So the introduction of this sort of exogenous media that can at least raise awareness of these types of biases is a first step to reducing these issues. Now when you ask, “How do we give people an empathetic understanding of the minority experience in the United States?”—that’s not something I’m as qualified to answer.
Dr. Adam Waytz is a psychologist and professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. A nationally acclaimed psychologist, his work focuses on the investigation of processes related to social influence and connection, meaning-making and ethics. A recent research paper he co-authored, “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks”, has received significant attention for being one of the first empirical psychological studies of racial bias. Dr. Waytz holds a B.A. in Psychology from Columbia University and a Ph.D in Social Psychology from the University of Chicago.