(AFP) – All human beings belong to the same species, Homo sapiens.
Few people would deny this fact. But there is a gap between what people say they hold to be true and what they believe deep down inside, according to a new study published Monday in the scientific journal PNAS.
A team of researchers from Harvard and Tufts universities collected data from more than 60,000 people who participated in several experiments testing their biases.
When explicitly asked about it, the vast majority said they consider both white and non-white people to be human beings.
But using a test to detect implicit bias, white participants more consistently associated human — rather than animal — attributes with their own ethnic group.
Black, Asian, and Hispanic participants showed no such preference: they equally associated their own group and white people with human attributes.
“The thing to remember for me is that we are always confronted, in new forms, with ideas that have been around for centuries,” Harvard researcher Kirsten Morehouse told AFP.
Throughout history, the dehumanization of other ethnic groups has been used as a pretext to treat them differently — sometimes leading to genocide.
– Implicit association test –
The study is based on a test called “implicit association”, first developed in the late 1990s, and widely used ever since.
Performed on a computer, it tests the strength of associations between positively or negatively connoted attributes and two concepts — for example, black or white people, or heterosexual or homosexual people.
The idea is that associations made more quickly are more ingrained in the mind than those made more slowly.
This type of test, according to the researchers, can thus reveal prejudices of which people are not really aware.
In total, 61% of white participants more easily associated white people with words related to humans (“person”, “man”, “humanity”…), and black people with words related to animals ( “creature”, “beast”…).
This proportion even climbed to 69% when white people had to compare their own group with Asian or Hispanic people.
The results were similar for all ages, education levels and religions. But conservative people and men tended to make this association between “whites” and “humans” more.
– Social hierarchy –
Non-white people did not show a bias favoring their group compared to white people.
But they tended to associate white people more with human attributes, compared to another minority ethnic group (different from their own).
According to the researcher, these results can be explained by the position of economic and social dominance of white people in the United States – where 85% of the participants in the study were located (8.5% were from Western Europe).
Although the results of such tests can be unpleasant for some people who are not aware of their prejudices, she says, being aware of them is the first step in combating them.