The science behind: hate speech


Graphic by Ben Wilcox

Talia Zitner

Do words really matter?

Many of us think they do.

New scientific research supports this idea, especially within the context of hate speech. Hate speech is any form of abusive or threatening speech or writing that shows prejudice against a particular group. The U.S. is experiencing a spike in violence and discrimination, specifically toward historically oppressed groups of people. It’s easy to dismiss some examples of hate speech as irrational or inflammatory, but it actually goes far beyond that. Hate speech has strong societal impacts, both from a social and neurological perspective.

The first part of this is explored in a series of studies conducted by the University of Warsaw that assert that “exposure to hate speech increases prejudice through desensitization.” This means that the more hate speech an individual hears, the more likely they will be to dislike the targeted group. The researchers conducted three different studies, each time studying the level of exposure the subject had to hate speech and their responses, following the General Aggression Model (a social-cognitive model that includes situational, individual, and biological factors that interact to produce a variety of cognitive, emotional, physiological and behavioral outcomes). One way to think about this concretely is in a parent-child relationship. While growing up, if a child hears their parents continually say hateful things about a certain group, person, or idea, the child is more likely to adopt the same ideas. It’s like a loop; the more a person hears hate speech, the less sensitive they become to it, and the more likely they are to express those same sentiments.

This, of course, has serious social repercussions. Natural human competition creates an “us vs. them” mentality, and coupled with the idea of desensitization can create a dangerous combination. As an abstract concept, this idea explains how people react to the hardships of their “competitor.”

A study published by the NIH explains how this might influence the likelihood of one group physically harming the other, or how they might react toward individuals who are linked to that group. The authors suggest that, “aggressive behaviors may spread beyond individual competitors to others merely associated with a rival group.” On a large scale, this can lead to atrocities such as genocide. On a much smaller scale, this could be a fight between fans of two different sports teams.

Social repercussions aside, there are complex responses that happen in the brain when it perceives hate speech. When anger and fear stimulate the brain, they trigger the release of a series of stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine. This engages the amygdala, which is the brain center that processes threats. A study published through the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America indicated that threatening language activates the amygdala.

In the experiment, subjects were asked to name the color of words that either had a threatening or neutral connotation that were presented in different colored fonts. Neural activity was measured by using H215O positron-emission tomography. It was found that activation of the amygdala was greater during color naming of threat words than during color naming of neutral words. It was also found that there was an association between the sensory-evaluate and motor-planning areas of the brain. Simply put, activation of the amygdala also makes it hard for people to control their emotions and think before they act.

Words have power. Writing has power. Actions have power. Collectively, we must think about how what we say affects others, it will almost always sink in.