Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Human origins and Africa

By Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton

Archaeology has witnessed a number of recent new discoveries that make this an exciting time to be studying human evolution. In this piece, for example, Dr. Chris Stringer discusses how technology is accelerating — even upending — our understanding of human origins. Accordng to Stringer, though, the scientific community remains in consensus about one thing: modern humans originated in Africa, and spread to the rest of the planet from there.

Frankly, I was hoping for different news. I was hoping for a discovery that would somehow reduce the strong mental association people have between “Africa” on the one hand and “earliest human origins” on the other. You see, as professor Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University notes, “I don't think it's intentional, but when people learn about human evolution, they walk away with a notion that people of African descent are closer to apes than people of European descent. When people think of a civilized person, a white man comes to mind."

Professor Eberhardt and her lab group (Goff, Eberhardt, Williams, and Jackson, 2008) found direct evidence that people continue to hold strong mental associations between Blacks and apes. As the authors note, “Though explicit representations of Blacks as apes may be relegated to history, the mental association lingers and appears to exert some influence on visual perception (p. 296).” In one study for example, study participants were exposed to pictures of White or Black faces subliminally, or outside of their conscious awareness. Next, the researchers had participants look at degraded images of animals, including alligtaors, fish, squirrels— and apes. Gradually, the pictures of these animals became clearer, and the participants’ task was to call out the animal as soon as they could recognize it. When participants had been subliminally exposed specifically to the Black faces, they were significantly faster at recognizing the degraded image of an ape for what it was. This faciliation did not happen when the subliminal picture was of a White face, and it did not happen for other animals. This suggests a mental association between “Black” and “ape,” occurring at the level of perception.

These types of mental associations have very real implications and consequences. In a follow-up study to the one described above, a different group of study participants was now exposed to words associated with apes, or to words associated with big cats. After having been exposed to these words, all participants watched a video of police officers violently subduing a criminal suspect. The participants were led to believe that the suspect was either Black or White. After viewing the clip, participants were asked how justified the police had been in using violence against the suspect, and how much the suspect’s behavior justifed the violence.

Astoundingly, violence was rated as more justified among those participants who thought the suspect was Black AND who had been exposed to words related to apes. No such facilitation was seen when participants were primed with big cats, or when the suspect was supposedly White. Thus, it seems that the association between Blacks and apes facilitates construals of our fellow human beings as less than human, and thus justifying violence.

As I have covered repeatedly in this blog (see, e.g., here and here), even though most of us disavow prejudice and stereotypes (and would strongly deny that we associate Blacks with apes), research shows that at an automatic level people continue to hold these associations— and that they continue to make a difference for the way we treat and think about others. The fact that these associations influence our perceptions and our behavior OUTSIDE OF OUR AWARENESS makes it all the more difficult to have conversations about and correct these issues, precisely because people do not have conscious access to their prejudices.

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Copyright 2012 by R. Mendoza-Denton (MCN: BS8Y4-PNV7V-EVK9V); all rights reserved. Cross-posted from Psychology Today.