We are aware the website may be loading slower than usual.
We appreciate your patience as we address the issue. Thank you!


Study: Rodent Metaphors Used To Describe Immigrants


Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP

Border wall prototypes stand in San Diego near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Words matter. They shape our perceptions, and often indicate how we’re supposed to feel about a subject.

Two professors started studying the language we use to talk about immigrants, and how those words might affect the way immigrants are treated.

Interestingly, the professors were not working together – in fact, they didn’t even know each other – but they came to the same conclusions about rodent and disease metaphors being used to describe immigrants.

Shantal Marshall is a psychology professor at Nevada State College. She became interested in the subject after working on a study that looked at why African Americans are associated with apes.

She wanted to see if another minority group was associated with another animal. She decided to look at Latino Americans and what she found was shocking.

“In that study, I found that people were associating Latinos with rodents and with insects," she said. "It was a complete shock to me. We weren’t expecting it at all."

From there, she wanted to find out if that association was related to immigration and how immigrants are covered by the news media. 

Steve Utych is a political science professor at Boise State University. He started looking at the issue when he was working on his dissertation, studying language and politics. 

Support comes from

“One thing I noticed is a lot of language used against these other groups were things that made them seem less human,” he said.

He researched how people talked about immigrants during the late 1800s and early 1900s and found they were often described in the same way that diseases are described.

He then looked at how immigrants are described now and found "it was a little more subtle, but it was still there."

To see the impact of language on people's ideas about immigrants, both professors used mock news articles that used metaphors that painted a picture of immigrants either being vermin or a disease. 

“In the experiments we found, when you have a news story that does have these metaphors throughout, it actually leads people to real feelings of disgust and that is dependent on how identified they are with being American,” Marshall said.

She said levels of disgust depended on how patriotic someone was. So, someone who described himself as being more patriotic would have a stronger sense of disgust and be more likely to support stricter immigration policies.

In his research, Utych looked at the subjects' emotional responses to immigrants that were described using disease metaphors.

“What’s happening is that these dehumanizing metaphors, these metaphors as disease are making people more angry towards immigrants and they’re also making people feel more disgusted or grossed out by the idea of immigrants coming into the country,” he said.

Utych hasn't looked specifically at whether using disease metaphors will lead to violence against a specific group, but past research has shown dehumanizing a group of people — like the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany before and during World War II — can make violence more likely.

“It makes easier for people to accept these really morally reprehensible things like violence and even genocide,” he said.

Marshall said writers need to be careful about the words they use when writing about immigrants because efforts to paint a picture with words will have unintended consequences. She gave the example of "scurry across the border" instead of "hurry across the border." Both phrases convey the same meaning but one paints a picture of immigrants as rodents.

“I think it is really important for us to remember that words that may seem innocuous are anything but,” she said.

Utych said it is unlikely that their research won't change the behavior of people who want to use that kind of language, but he said it could change the behavior of people who don't want their language to have negative consequences.

“There are a lot of people out there that use this type of language because it seems impactful and they don’t realize the consequences of it,” he said.


Shantal Marshall, psychology professor, Nevada State College; Steve Utych, political science professor, Boise State University

KNPR and NPR Thank-You Gifts including t-shirts hoodies and cap