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This one small language tweak could change our views of refugees

It’s easy to stoke fears of faceless refugee masses. Here’s a small way to fight back.

Joe Prachatree / Shutterstock

When we encounter a stranger, one of our first (unconscious) thoughts is a question: Is there a mind in there?

As humans, we have a unique ability to recognize others as having minds — capable of feeling, thinking, and acting — separate from our own. And the answer to the question “Is there a mind in there?” is a key predictor of how much we sympathize and empathize with one another.

But researchers have located a big blind spot when it comes to our ability to perceive other minds: When people are lumped into groups, we have a harder time seeing the individuals in those groups as having free-thinking minds. This matters because when we’re talking about “Syrian refugees” or “illegal immigrants,” it’s all too easy to see them as a faceless horde, incapable of having the same rich human experience we enjoy.

And it’s one way we can end up dehumanizing people and denying that they’re capable of a rich internal human experience. If you deny someone has the capacity to feel human pain, it makes it easier to hunt them down.

Recently, University of North Carolina psychologist Kurt Gray, along with colleagues at Colgate University and Penn State, tested whether there’s a way to push back against our cold perception of groups. Turns out it’s extremely simple.

Why “people in a group” get more empathy than “a group of people”

Gray’s work is about finding out where people draw the line between perceiving another (or an inanimate object) as having a mind or not. What Gray and collaborators have found is that our perception of others’ minds is composed of two variables: agency, the ability to think and make decisions; and experience, the ability to feel emotions.

Animals have a lot of experience but little agency. Robots are the opposite: They have agency but not experience. And humans exist somewhere in between. But when we humans lump each other into groups, we tend to rate others lower on both agency and experience.

Psychologists have long known that simple turns of phrase can change our thinking. Nobel Prize–winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky showed that people are more likely to take riskier actions to avoid a loss than they would to gain something.

Gray and colleagues tried a similar tweak in a recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: What if instead of saying “a group of people,” we said “people in a group”? Would that emphasize individuality enough to increase the perception that those people have working, thinking, feeling minds?

The experiment broke participants into three groups. All the participants were told they were going to evaluate people who worked for an accounting firm and answer questions about their capacity to think and feel.

Participants were asked about specific individuals in the firm, “an accounting company comprised of 15 people,” or “15 people who compose the accounting company.” The key difference is between those last two.

“An accounting firm comprised of” highlights the group (this is the “group-frame” in the graph below).

The “15 people who compose” phrasing highlights the individuals in that group (this is the “group-composition framing”).

The results were pretty clear:.

With the group framing (on the right), participants were much less likely to ascribe experience (again: the ability to feel) or agency (the ability to think) to people, while they ascribed the same amount of mindfulness to individuals and to the “individuals in a group” framing. A follow-up test showed that this framing tweak also increased sympathy for the firm after participants were told it went bankrupt.

Why it matters to remember the individual

There’s a simple message to take away from these results: It is probably possible to increase empathy just by having politicians, journalists, or anyone else say “100 Syrian refugees in a group” instead of “a group of 100 Syrian refugees,” Gray says.

And while he admits this test was not specifically about refugees, he suspects the results would carry over. (And all the usual caveats apply: The researchers replicated the finding in two studies in this paper. Also: This study didn’t look at real-world behavior but rather a fictional survey.)

But the big idea here is supported by other research. Charities have long understood the "identifiable victim effect” — which finds that images of singular victims are easier to empathize with than statistics or stories about large groups of people. (This effect could, in part, explain why the image of the one drowned Syrian boy in 2015 galvanized so much awareness of the refugee crisis.)

Recently, I reported on some concerning new psychological research that finds many Americans are willing to say they think Muslims are less evolved. This blatant dehumanization has political implications. People who dehumanize are more likely to blame Muslims as a whole for the actions of a few perpetrators. They are more likely to support policies restricting the immigration of Arabs to the United States. People who dehumanize low-status or marginalized groups score higher on a measure called “social dominance orientation,” meaning that they favor inequality among groups in society, with some groups dominating others.

“Dehumanization doesn’t only occur in wartime,” Nick Haslam, a psychologist who is the world’s current leading expert on dehumanization, told me while I was reporting the story. “It’s happening right here, right now. And every day, good people who don’t see themselves as being prejudiced bigots are nevertheless falling prey to it.”

This new research is a reminder that the language we choose to describe people matters, and could be a tool to combat prejudice. “People may be less willing to help ... an ‘orphanage full of children’ than “children in an orphanage,’” Gray and his co-authors write.

Refugees and immigrants are discriminated the world over. Gray’s latest study is just a simple reminder that we can combat this: The more we can emphasize the individual in a given situation, the better.

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