A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has documented a strong link between individuals who hold dehumanizing belief systems and support for capital punishment.

The study by University of Oregon Journalism and Communications Professor David Markowitz (pictured, left) and Psychology Professor Paul Slovic (pictured, right), was part of ongoing academic efforts to explain why some people dehumanize undocumented immigrants to the United States. The researchers found that those whose verbal behavior reflected a dehumanizing belief system were more likely to favor harsh anti-immigration practices and support gun rights and the death penalty.

The researchers found that the evidence “suggests that dehumanization is prevalent and pervasive” in the United States and that “a substantial number of Americans can be classified as dehumanizers.” This, the report said, “indicat[es] a broader social problem related to a proportion of Americans who wish to punish out-group members who they believe are generally bad, ‘less than,’ or threatening.”

“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 added in a statement accompanying the release of the study. “We can move forward by acknowledging our blind spots as individuals.”

Study participants were randomly assigned to read a scenario where either a lone immigrant or an immigrant with a child were caught crossing the southern U.S. border illegally. Participants were asked to rate how long the immigrant should spend in jail and asked to explain their judgements through written answers to a series of questions. Markowitz and Slovic then evaluated the written responses for words that indicated dehumanization: impersonal pronouns, such as it and who; power words, such as opposite and pitiful; and emotion terms, such as hate and disgust. The researchers wrote that words “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.”

The researchers found that “those who sent immigrants to jail for more time also viewed them as socially distant and less human, described immigration in impersonal terms, and endorsed other social harms unrelated to immigration (e.g., the death penalty for convicted murderers).”

The study complements other research on the psychological dynamics of capital punishment. Research on the “death qualification” process—the selection of capital-case jurors through a process that requires them to express a willingness to impose the death penalty—has found that as their level of support for the death penalty increased, jurors also exhibited more negative attitudes towards women, gays, and people of other races. As support for the death penalty has declined in the U.S., studies have found that the jury selection process has produced increasingly unrepresentative juries whose members are “unusually hostile” to mitigating evidence introduced to spare a defendant’s life, particularly in cases involving African American defendants.

In addition, the study’s analysis of verbal behavior as evidence of dehumanizing tendencies sheds light on a range of tactics prosecutors have often employed in seeking death sentences. The study suggests that dehumanization is linked to “how people talk about ‘less than’ outgroups, adverse childhood experiences, and perceived vulnerability in society.” Cases suggest that prosecutors activate dehumanizing tendencies through inflammatory arguments, including animal references such as describing black defendants as apes and Latinx defendants as insects and attempting to ascribe gender non-conforming roles to female capital defendants.

Slovic said the ultimate goal of the dehumanization study was “mitigating cruelty around the world.” “We hope that interdisciplinary social science research can inform how vulnerable populations are treated,” he said.


David Markowitz and Paul Slovic, Social, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and demo­graph­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics of dehu­man­iza­tion toward immi­grants, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, April 16, 2020; UO study finds new links to dehu­man­iza­tion of immi­grants, University of Oregon, April 23, 2020; Traci Pederson, Views on Guns, Death Penalty Linked to Harsh Treatment of Immigrants, Psych Central, May 12020.