EVANSTON, Ill., Nov. 14 (UPI) -- A recent study posits white people may possess a bias which causes them to imbue black people with superhuman qualities.
"A Superhumanization Bias in Whites' Perceptions of Blacks," published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, examines the idea that black people have been historically dehumanized, "from constitutional denial of full legal personhood to enslavement."
But while psychological research on dehumanization has focused largely on subhuman representation of others, the phenomenon of "superhumanization," defined in the study as "the representation of others as possessing mental and physical qualities that are supernatural," has remained largely unexamined as a means by which others are cast as nonhuman.
In the first of a series of five studies, researchers Kelly Marie Hoffman and Sophie Trawalter of the University of Virginia and Adam Waytz of Northwestern University performed Implicit Association Tests and found white participants were more likely to link words commonly associated with the supernatural, (ghost, paranormal, spirit, wizard, supernatural, magic, mystical), to pictures of black people, and more likely to link seven "human words," (person, individual, humanity, people, civilian, mankind, citizen), to pictures of white people.
In the second test -- to account for the possibility that the bias in test one occurred in part because of White-Human associations as opposed to Black-Superhuman associations -- the researchers used categorization tasks, again asking participants to quickly associate a word with an image, this time with more groupings, (Black/Human, Black/Superhuman, Black/Subhuman, White/Human, White/Superhuman, White/Subhuman), and asking participants to quickly sort words as belonging to a category based on the image of a face flashed on the screen. They found the same bias present as in study one.
In another test, participants were shown pictures of a white person and a black person and asked to choose:
1 Which person "is more likely to have superhuman skin that is thick enough that it can withstand the pain of burning hot coals?"
2 Which person "is more capable of using their supernatural powers to suppress hunger and thirst?"
3 Which person "is more capable of using supernatural powers to read a person's mind by touching the person's head?"
4 Which person "is more capable of surviving a fall from an airplane without breaking a bone through the use of supernatural powers?"
5 Which person "has supernatural quickness that makes them capable of running faster than a fighter jet?"
6 Which person "has supernatural strength that makes them capable of lifting up a tank?"
Overall the black person was chosen 63.5 percent of the time, though for falling out of a plane and reading minds black people were only selected just over half the time.
Studies 3-4 demonstrate this phenomenon at an explicit level, showing that Whites preferentially attribute superhuman capacities to Blacks versus Whites, and Study 4 specifically shows superhumanization of Blacks predicts denial of pain to Black versus White targets.
How is this bias reflected in American culture? Sportscasters discussing fast-twitch muscle fiber, stereotypes about genitalia, and phrases like "black don't crack" are common.
The Boston Globe pointed out a Los Angeles Times op-ed from 2007 calling out the elevation of Barack Obama as a savior figure by some who had outsized expectations of his ability to single-handedly effect change. The paper cites Director Spike Lee's famous criticism of the way black characters are portrayed in Hollywood films like The Green Mile or The Legend of Bagger Vance: "These films all have these magical, mystical Negroes who show up as some sort of spirit or angel, but only to benefit the white characters."
And while imbuing a group of people with superhuman abilities might seem like a complimentary thing on the surface, the study contends this bias leads to dehumanization on the personal and political level.
The results suggest superhumanization of black individuals may contribute to the undertreatment of pain for black patients because they're viewed as being able to endure more, which supports earlier research from the same authors that showed nurses of any race see black patients as less sensitive to pain than white patients. The authors assert superhumanization may also explain white tolerance for police brutality against black people.
"Perhaps people assume that Blacks possess extra (i.e., superhuman) strength which enables them to endure violence more easily than other humans."
The authors say their results "might also explain why people consider Black juveniles to be more 'adult' than White juveniles when judging culpability."
The phenomenon has received virtually no empirical attention thus far, according to the authors, who also took time to point out that while this study focused on superhumanization of black people "because of suggestive historical, anecdotal, and quantitative empirical evidence that such a bias exists," the phenomenon might apply to other minorities.
For example, whereas superhumanization of Blacks might focus on physical attributes (as in Study 4) related to the stereotype of African-American athleticism (Devine & Elliot, 1995), superhumanization of Asians might center on enhanced intelligence consistent with stereotypes of Chinese and Japanese.
"For now," the study concludes, "the present research provides evidence of a superhumanization bias that, despite its ostensible distinction from other forms of prejudice, may be just as dehumanizing and consequential."