One of the most striking and perturbing findings comes from the work of social psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt who dared to ask whether US citizens unconsciously associate Black people with apes? (http://aapf.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/05/not-yet-human.pdf)
Not only has there been a rich history of writings on this specific association, but much more recent evidence. For example, a policeman who had been involved in the Rodney King beatings in Los Angeles in 1991 subsequently spoke about an altercation between a Black[i] husband and wife as “something right out of Gorillas in the Mist.” Following a comment by President Barack Obama concerning the need to rein in special interest groups, the conservative radio-television commentator Glenn Beck expressed his dismay, stating “Special Interests! What planet have I landed on? Did I slip through a worm hole in the middle of the night and this looks like America? It's like the damn planet of the apes!" Because comments like this are minimally the source of eyebrow raising and maximally, job loss and murder, most people keep such thoughts to themselves, if they have them at all. Eberhardt was interested in the possibility that almost everyone carries this association around in their heads, unconsciously, even if they are not explicitly racist.
In one experiment, Eberhardt used a technique called subliminal priming. Subliminal priming involves rapidly presenting pictures, sounds or other experiences under the radar of awareness and then presenting material that is within the radar of awareness. If the two experiences are similar, the unconscious version affects subjects’ perception of the conscious one. For example, if you first prime with a woman’s face, subjects respond faster to faces of women than men. If you prime with a high frequency tone, the brain responds less when you present a high frequency tone again than when you present a low frequency tone. In other words, despite the fact that subjects are unaware of the prime, it affects their judgments. Eberhardt first primed subjects with faces of White or Black people or an unrecognizable non-face. They then watched a short movie that started off with an unrecognizable object that looked like it was covered by dense snow. As the movie progressed, the snow lifted, making it easier to recognize the object as a line drawing of either a duck, dolphin, alligator, squirrel or ape. Subjects stopped the movie as soon as they recognized the animal.
Compared with White faces and non-faces, priming with Black faces caused subjects to stop the movie much sooner for apes, but not for any other animal. Compared with non-faces, priming with White faces caused subjects to stop the movie much later for apes, but not for any other animal. Eberhardt also showed that priming with ape drawings, but not other animals, led to faster recognition of Black faces compared with White faces. These patterns emerged for both White and Black subjects.
These are remarkable findings. They can’t be explained by some superficial similarity between human faces and animals because the animals were represented as line drawings, or in another experiment as words; had Eberhardt used actual photographs of animals, subjects could have used similarity in skin color or nose shape --for example, seeing a black human face would prime seeing a black ape face because both have the color black in common. Instead, apes are associated with the socio-cultural, racial category of Black.
These are disturbing findings with nasty implications for human nature. But perhaps they are not so bad if the only take home message is that we are closet racists with antiquated theories of evolution or God’s design. Outside of these artificial studies, we are well educated citizens who keep our isms tucked away, locked up in the mind’s unconscious. Unfortunately, these disturbing findings are even more disturbing when married to other results collected by Eberhardt. In one study, subjects watched a video of a policeman using force to subdue a suspect who was either Black or White. When primed with an ape drawing, but not that of a big cat, subjects were more likely to say that the policeman was justified in subduing the Black suspect than the White suspect. Finally, in analyses of newspaper clippings of capital crime convictions in Philadelphia from the 1960s, journalists were more likely to use ape-relevant language (“ape”, “monkey”, “gorilla”) for Black than White criminals. We are more than closet racists.
[i] I realize that there are disagreements about the appropriate terminology here, with some preferring “African American” and others lower case “black.” I prefer upper case “Black” for two reasons. One, if you are referring to all people, the world over, of African descent, then Black or black makes more sense than the geographically restrictive African American. Two, Black is preferred over black because the former refers to a category.